Does Jonathan Chait Think Liberals Don't Know How To Google?
Yesterday, New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait tried to explain "Why Liberal Media Needs Conservative Columnists." This was, of course, partially in response to the Atlantic's firing of Kevin Williamson. Apparently it is a very big cause for concern when something as minor as wanting to hang one-fourth of the women in this country disqualifies a white Republican man from getting paid to give his opinion on things for a living.
Chait's reasoning, largely, was that the Left needs to venture outside of its box and learn what the opposition is thinking, in order to "sharpen" our arguments.
And there are certain kinds of flaws in liberal politics that conservatives are far better suited to identify. Liberals need to at least be presented with cogent challenges to their beliefs about government’s capabilities in the economic sphere, and lack of capability in the military sphere, and the speed at which culture can and should be changed, in order to test and sharpen them.
This would all make lots and lots of sense if that were the only possible way for anyone to discover this. Perhaps if we still lived in a time where reading anything required a subscription and we could only afford a scant few periodicals. Perhaps if the only possible things one could read or watch were what one could call "liberal media." Perhaps if Google and Fox News did not exist.
As it stands, there is no great difficulty in finding conservative opinions on just about anything. To suggest that the only way for us to "sharpen" our arguments by reading them is for them to be published in The Atlantic or The New York Times is to suggest that we are complete morons who are incapable of seeking that out on our own if it is not spoon fed to us. I don't know about you, but I find that a tad insulting.
I know what conservatives believe, as -- I assume -- do you. There isn't much they can really surprise us with considering that they have been arguing the exact same things lo the past 100 years. Want to know what conservatives think of immigration? Check out an op-ed from 1920! Want to know what they think about diversity and civil rights? Bust out some old John Birch Society pamphlets! Want to know how they feel about baking cakes for gay people? Go watch videos of Lester Maddox trying to keep black people out of his restaurant! Same arguments! They're not "ideologically diverse," they are ideologically repetitive.
I would also argue that the kind of conservative op-ed published by a Never Trumper at The Atlantic or The New York Times is not going to actually give you a very good idea of how actual conservatives think to begin with. You are not going to understand conservatives by reading David Brooks. You are not going to understand them by reading anything published in an elite liberal periodical replete with fact checkers and a push to appear "reasonable." Hell, you'll probably only get winks and nods at it over at the National Review. If you truly want to know what they think, go on over to the comments section of Breitbart, or to r/The_Donald. Go to The Federalist. Go where they let their freak flags fly. Then, you will understand what we are actually dealing with.
Having token conservatives at liberal publications is not about being fair, it is not about exposing liberals to the beliefs of "the enemy" so that they may sharpen their arguments -- it is about building up the myth of the intelligent conservative who can, hypothetically, be reasoned with. Why? Because it makes things less terrifying. As awful as Kevin Williamson is, he is probably smarter than these dudes over on Reddit misunderstanding Steinbeck quotes and explaining how Americans are less free than other countries because "multiculturalism."
The other issue with this stance is that it plays into the false narrative conservatives are set on perpetuating these days -- that their freedom of speech is being oppressed somehow. People are 32 flavors of outraged that poor Kevin Williamson lost his job at The Atlantic just for wanting to see women hanged, and yet it would never occur to me to pitch an article suggesting that the workers should own the means of production over at the National Review. Which I would argue is less radical than, you know, murder. It would also not occur to anyone that the National Review was suppressing my freedom of speech by not accepting such a pitch. No one out there is worried that conservatives are depriving themselves of important intellectual challenges by not exposing themselves to liberal beliefs.
That is because this is not about speech, it is not about ideological diversity, it is about marketing. Liberals do not like to be told they are being unfair or repressing anyone's freedom of speech, and the Right is playing on this instinct in order to gain the upper hand. Because it's marketing, they are free to be hypocritical. They are free to rage about liberal publications not having enough conservative writers, even though conservative publications are not going around publishing liberal writers -- and there are liberals, like Chait, who will go along with them on this.
Chait claims that his fear is primarily that if we are not "challenged," we will sink into "dogma."
But representing the views of conservative America is not the only function of conservative columnists. They also put useful pressure on liberal ideas. The theories of philosophers like John Stuart Mill, and the premise of democratic government, is that ideas have to be contested openly, or else will harden into dogma. All political communities have an inherent tendency to gravitate toward the positions of whoever holds their shared belief most ardently.
And again, we can fucking Google. The assumption that any of us actually does live in some bubble where we don't know what conservative viewpoints even are is insulting beyond belief. But this "sinking into dogma" argument would only make sense if the left did not do just as good a job of "challenging the left from the right" as conservatives do. If anything, the "liberal media" is way the hell too concerned with how conservatives think and feel. Thus, the 87,000 journalistic empathy voyages into "Trump country" for the past two years and the proliferation of the "I'm a liberal but the liberals are just going too far" apologetic center-left columnists. A little more dogma would not kill us.
I happen to agree with Chait's colleague Eric Levitz, who argues that hiring conservative writers is not the only way for liberal media outlets to embrace "ideological diversity" -- and suggests hiring and publishing socialist writers instead. Sure, it is for somewhat selfish reasons -- and I also believe that we need to be publishing all kinds of different views from the left, not just those of socialists -- but I really believe that our time is better spent generating new and exciting ideas and debating those than it is patiently explaining why hanging a quarter of the women in this country is bad.
Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Previously, she was a Senior Staff Writer at Death & Taxes, and Assistant Editor at The Frisky (RIP). Currently, she writes for Wonkette, Friendly Atheist, Quartz and other sites. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse