As someone who hits for the privilege cycle (white, male and heterosexual) I have had many opportunities over the years to realize I’ve inadvertently offended someone. It’s always a bit of a shock - I thought I was being complimentary/helpful/sensitive! - but I think I’ve learned at least one useful lesson from these experiences: The best response is usually to shut up and listen.
That’s a tough thing to do, because the overwhelming impulse it to justify the offense, to let those offended know that none was intended, that my motive really was good and pure, and so on. Following that impulse is usually the best way to make a bad situation worse, though. The offended individuals usually aren’t much interested in hearing a strained rationalization (exasperated women call it mansplaining); usually they are more interested in being heard.
So when Patricia Arquette’s comments on Oscar night (“it’s time for all the women in America, and the men who love women and all the gay people and people of color we’ve all fought for to fight for us now”) went over like a lead balloon among people of color, I really hoped those who initially applauded her comments would take a step back and reconsider. After all, white feminists have at times sidelined people of color. Prejudiced language periodically rears its ugly head to the present day, with examples both famous (Geraldine Ferraro) and infamous (Harriet Christian).
Christian’s language is particularly revealing. In the same short clip she disparages Barack Obama as an “inadequate black male” she also says: “it’s equality for all of us, it’s about time we all stood up for it.” She claims to be for equality for everyone, but that sentiment sure seems to rest comfortably with a pretty virulent racism. Perhaps people of color could be forgiven for picking up echoes of the former when hearing declarations of the latter.
Because here’s the thing. If you claim to be welcoming of everyone and interested in justice for all, it’s fair to look at how people are responding. In Arquette’s case, people of color had an extremely negative response. I had an extended discussion about that with Libby Spencer on Twitter, and the starting point was Libby’s belief that criticizing Arquette’s comments amounted to an attack on Arquette.
I thought of it much differently: if Arquette was making a call for solidarity with people of color, and they reacted negatively, then maybe that represented an excellent opportunity to shut up and listen to them - not to explain why they are misunderstanding her. Maybe they weren’t feeling an ally vibe because Arquette was not being a good ally. Maybe she wasn’t calling for mutual aid by demanding it of others. (Mutual aid is something one offers, not claims.)
Nicole Sandler went further, by turns wallowing in self-pity (“I feel as if I’m supposed to apologize for being born white, but even that wouldn’t satisfy the people who are excoriating me today…I’m apparently everything that’s wrong with the evil white woman”), belittling critics (who are “projecting their insecurities”) and essentially declaring America post-racial (“I am denying that I benefit from White Privilege”).
But cutting through the rhetorical clutter, her thesis still has that blind spot: “I always thought the issues we feminists fought for were inclusive of ALL women.” If that’s the case then why hasn’t a proportionate demographic slice of all women flocked to it? Why are there still such clear racial fault lines on the subject? It’s silly, almost trivial, to say one is welcoming of all people. Hell, even Rush Limbaugh says that. The proof is in the pudding.
Similarly, saying that Arquette was “using the phrase ALL WOMEN over and over again” doesn’t mean the message resonated with all women. The fact that so many women of color reacted negatively suggests that the burden is more on Arquette (and her defenders) to understand why that is - rather than on others to “reach out for clarification.” It’s not as though her words were cleverly edited or truncated. Everyone heard exactly what she said, fully in context.
Solidarity is a tough thing. It isn’t enough to say you’re inclusive, it’s also important to look around and see who’s actually included. Who’s drawn to it and who stays away. Arquette’s comments were tone deaf at best, and at worst were part of a long tradition of “wait your turn” activism that has an undertone of racial animus. Those repelled by her words may not have misunderstood her, and may in fact have understood her all too well. The unwillingness to reach out for clarification on that is the real missed opportunity.
NOTE: Much of this post concerns Jonathan Chait’s terrible judgment on the Iraq War. I understand the impulse to say: that was a long time ago, let’s move on already, what else ya got? But the Iraq War was the most important foreign policy issue of the last couple of decades, which means reputations deserve to be made or destroyed by it. You don’t get to screw up on something of that magnitude and then get what Charles Pierce called (in a slightly different context) a Great Mulligan. It should haunt you for as long as you are an analyst. Whiff on the biggest issue of a generation and expect to hear about it year after year. So yes, Iraq again. For those who got it wrong, always and forever Iraq.
Sam Pritchard has a great essay responding to Chait’s piece on political correctness. (Inclusiveness is a long-standing concern for Chait.) He addresses Chait’s wildly overheated rhetoric, the contradiction between demanding some ideas be logically engaged while summarily dismissing others, and the limits of civil discourse in changing people’s minds. He also writes about the ability of falsehood to persist in the popular imagination, noting (among other things) that “42% of Americans still believe we found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
This bit of misinformation jumped out at me because it points back to Chait’s own enthusiastic support of the Iraq War. He was one of the leading voices on the left calling for the attack. He now invokes “the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.” How was he using reason back in 2002? Well for one, he wrote “we must eliminate Iraq’s nonconventional arsenal by any means at our disposal, including, if all else fails, war.” Which means everyone knew Iraq had WMDs right?
Actually, no. Scott Ritter didn’t think so. Mohamed El Baradei didn’t think so. Why were these experts not legitimate in his eyes? They actually had experience on the ground. For someone as concerned as Chait now is with opposing views being defined as illegitimate, he didn’t even bother to acknowledge (much less rebut) their arguments - which, just to be clear, were correct.
Chait could only muster withering contempt for the idea inspections and later write “it was very hard to know at the time.” It was only hard to know if one was heavily emotionally invested in supporting the Bush administration. If one took a more rational approach it was pretty easy. But faith in Iraq’s WMD program assumed, to coin a phrase, a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people.
There was excellent reason to believe Iraq likely didn’t have WMDs. Even if it did, did that justify launching a war? Again, looking at it rationally: of course not - and that too was easy to know at the time. (Keep in mind the WMD issue is just one of Chait’s intuition-based positions on Iraq. For brevity’s sake I won’t touch the claim that “the liberal concern for humanitarianism should not stand in the way” of war, wholesale absurdities like this, etc.)
Pushing the Bush administration’s line was not an intellectual exercise. Pierce (again) wrote that it “relied on journalistic convention and the soft agreements between gentlemen to peddle their poison,” and concludes: “it is still the most important thing to remember that there were people who got…it…right.” These things were knowable, provided one wanted to know them.
During the run-up to war America’s political and media elite were overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, pro-war (just ask Phil Donahue). I understand the worry one might have had about being fired or ostracized. I understand the psychic incentive to go along, to look extra hard for reasons to support the case for war, and conversely to give extra scrutiny to the case against it.
I know how tempting it was to blandly say “I don’t think you can argue that a regime change in Iraq won’t demonstrably and almost immediately improve the living conditions of the Iraqi people,” even though there wasn’t a scrap of evidence - beyond the wild imaginings of neocon warmongers and Iraqi exiles eyeing power - to support it. Not that I agree with it or excuse it, but I can certainly understand it. It’s entirely possible I’d have done the same thing.
But boy howdy it takes a special kind of cluelessness to happily surf a wave of propaganda that helps launch a war of aggression, and then ever again for the rest of your life talk about how you are a champion of Enlightenment thinking. Chait’s actual sins against rational discourse dwarf the ones he imagines in his opponents.
Jonathan Chait’s latest adventure in pointless contrarianism has already been wrestled to the ground and noogied, with Alex Pareene doing an especially delightful job. The short version is this. With the exception of the incident at the top of the article (about which: intimidation, violence and threats of violence are completely wrong) Chait catalogues some snarky behavior and petty grievances, then tries to blow it up into a threat to democracy.
As Angus Johnston pointed out, everything else that Chait objects to in his article is speech. He says he’s in the “solution to speech you don’t like is more speech” camp, then proceeds to lament people using more speech to prevent, say, Condoleezza Rice from having yet another opportunity to share her unique thoughts about things. Those who didn’t want their university to sponsor one of the architects of the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history had, in Chait’s view, an unwillingness to encounter contrary ideas. (Does he not know what the point of protest is?)
So while in theory Chait favors more speech for everyone, he doesn’t really like how it can work out in practice. Those he disagrees with are welcome to their more speech, but only on the condition that it is exercised in a way no one notices.
He traces this troubling development to the beginning of the political correctness movement in the early 90s. This is kind of funny because the title of his essay recalls a formulation conservatives loved to use back then - invoking the phrase as a way to endorse reactionary positions. (“Well, this may not be politically correct, but (insert antediluvian sentiment here).”)
Whatever the origin, lots of people can now broadcast their opinions on social media. Someone says something, then others respond. If the first thing said is provocative then there might be lots of responses, and those responses might be pointed. Chait is totally fine with that first thing, which makes sense considering he’s a professional instigator at a major media outlet. But that second thing? Why, it’s “swarms of jeering critics” (everyone to the cellar!)
Here’s another curiosity. Chait deplores mansplaining as “an all-purpose term of abuse that can be used to discredit any argument by any man,” but he uses his own all-purpose term of abuse to respond to Pareene. (It also violates Rule #1 for Contrarians. Bad form!) In Chait’s case it’s “ad hominem.” This is something I’ve observed more and more lately - writers using that phrase as an excuse to not address substantive criticism.
A great deal of online criticism has a mix of styles. Some combine insults and mockery (the dreaded ad hominem) with substantive critiques. To grab one random example of someone who favors this approach, consider Jonathan Chait. In just the last couple of weeks he has called James Inhofe primitive, the opinions of climate-science skeptics “bizarre ramblings,” the Republican Party “obviously unhinged” and senseless, and so on. He certainly likes his personal attacks, doesn’t he?
Which is fine, or can be anyway. Name calling can be an effective rhetorical technique. Making your opponent look foolish can help persuade others that your position is the right one. What you can’t do, though, at least not without looking like a thin skinned and pompous twit, is use ad hominems when it suits you and then recoil in priggish horror when they’re used against you. And that’s exactly what Chait does in his response - one which, hilariously, both uses and decries ad hominems in the same sentence.
I don’t think many people who dive in to the rough and tumble of social and political debate have an unwavering sense of propriety. Calls for civility usually come from those who are on the inside looking out. If you’re on the outside, your voice may be all you’ve got. Sometimes it takes being a little bit loud and colorful to get noticed. That goes both ways though. It’s fun when your preferred targets are on the receiving end of ridicule, not so much when you or your allies are. But if you’ve been dishing it out you damn well better be able to take it.
You don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to say, this piece has personal attacks and therefore should not be dignified with comment, then gleefully use personal attacks in your own writing. If you do, anyone who’s paying attention will understand the real reason for not responding: you’ve got nothing. That’s certainly how it looks in this case.
The dramatic fall in oil prices of late comes across as a pleasant surprise at first blush. Anyone who drives has presumably noticed the lower prices at the pump, and I don’t expect to hear much complaining about it. There’s also a certain schadenfreude in seeing speculators lose their shirts. That happy news is somewhat leavened (for me, anyway) by an exasperated sense of “what did you expect?” towards places like North Dakota that have bet heavily on the industry.
When you let drillers come in, create wild and uninhabitable boom towns, foul the environment and drag their feet on remediation, put people at a wide variety of risks, chew up the infrastructure, and so on - when you let all that happen during the good times, how do you expect it to be when it all goes south? Oil and gas extraction is not just cyclical, but notoriously prone to wild booms and busts. Whatever the dubious merits of giving the industry a free hand when extraction is profitable, doing so creates a positively bleak picture down the line - and degrades liberal democracy from the very beginning.
So while it’s nice to see drilling activity start to be affected by the glut, it’s also worth asking if that’s the best way for it to happen. One could take a practical view and say, who cares what’s causing the reduction in fracking as long as it’s happening? Does it really matter if it’s because of global over supply, or unexpectedly rapid well decline rates (that 200 year supply doesn’t look so sure these days, Aubrey), or a string of activist victories, or hell - because astro space zombies uprooted all the drilling rigs and launched them into the sun? Those of us opposed to fracking are starting to see the results we want; don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Still, there have been important wins this year, and it would be a shame for the issue to be treated with less urgency because of geopolitical intrigue. Fracking bans in New York state and multiple towns should be built on, efforts like the citizen audit of ODNR should continue, and so on.
A slowdown in new fracking operations doesn’t mean the impact of existing ones is diminished. It doesn’t cause gigantic methane clouds to dissipate. The health, environmental and community impacts will continue - they just won’t accelerate as quickly.
In fact, a time like this could be well used in making elected officials more responsive to public sentiment. An industry hemorrhaging money is one with reduced political clout. Now might be an especially good time to make lawmakers survey the wreckage and tell us how well giving drillers carte blanche has worked out for citizens. We may be entering a very receptive environment for new safeguards and regulations. Lord knows that won’t be the case once the price rout ends. Rather than become complacent or distracted, this is a moment to redouble our efforts.
Batocchio has posted his annual Jon Swift Memorial Roundup. Al Weisel, who passed away in 2009, ran the blog Jon Swift as a conservative parody. Here is a particular favorite of mine. Al was a great and generous supporter of bloggers, and a big believer in its ethos: individuals running small but independent sites as alternatives to more established outlets.
The blog world feels a little smaller these days. Some bloggers got picked up by mainstream sites, others went dormant as the novelty wore off, and still others largely migrated to social media where they were a better fit. But as Batocchio’s post shows, blogging is alive and well. See for yourself. And rest in peace, Al.
Best wishes to all for a very happy 2015, and thanks much for spending some time at Pruning Shears this year.