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[Commentary]

Part of the Problem

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Jonathan Chait's flawed attack on David Bromwich's critique of Barack Obama's presidency

This month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine features David Bromwich’s extended assessment of Barack Obama’s presidential tenure. Bromwich voted twice for Obama and acknowledges that “his predecessor was worse, and his successor most likely will also be worse.” Yet he has been one of the president’s most persistent and articulate critics from the left. In this lengthy piece, Bromwich considers Obama’s shortcomings on many fronts—among them his failure to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, his extension of the surveillance state, his decision to fill his economic team with Wall Street-friendly Clintonites—and finds that they are tied together by a single theme: Obama’s tendency, when politics get “tough,” to follow the “path of least resistance.” (The words are the president’s own.)

One symptom of this tendency, in Bromwich’s view, has been Obama’s inability to outflank elements within the State Department whose foreign policy goals are contradictory to Obama’s own. For example, Obama consistently spoke of de-escalation with Russia while assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland boasted privately and publicly of the State Department’s efforts to support pro-Western elements within Ukraine, efforts which Bromwich believes included a policy of defamation against Vladimir Putin. “When Nuland appeared in Kiev to hand out cookies to the anti-Russian protesters,” Bromwich writes, “it was as if a Russian operative had arrived to cheer a mass of anti-American protesters in Baja California.” Such behavior is tough to understand, given Obama’s stated desire to improve relations with Putin. “It almost looks,” Bromwich concludes, “as if a cell of the State Department assumed the management of Ukraine policy and the president was helpless to alter their design.” Bromwich is hardly the first person to suggest the existence of a “deep state” that works independently of the rest of the administration—in fact, his piece cites half a dozen reporters whose work he’s relied on here—but the idea of “cells” within the U.S. government working against the president’s stated goals will certainly be difficult for some to credit, and Bromwich is careful to present these arguments as speculative. In any case, they are a small part of an extended critique of the administration, and they can only be understood within the context of a much larger consideration of Obama’s political weaknesses.

This issue had been in subscribers’ mailboxes for a matter of hours when New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait posted his response to Bromwich’s essay. This much is hardly surprising: Chait has made himself the go-to “reasonable centrist” for swatting down the left’s criticisms of Obama. What was surprising was the particular angle Chait took for his attack. In a post titled “Obama Is Defaming Putin, Complains Harper’s Cover Story,” Chait focuses on Bromwich’s comparison of Kiev to Baja California:

Right, it’s exactly as if Russian operatives had come to greet anti-American protesters in California. Except there aren’t anti-American protesters in California, largely because California is part of the United States of America. Kiev, on the other hand, is not part of Russia.

It didn’t take long for someone—presumably a reader, not an editor or fact-checker at New York—to point out that California and Baja California are not, in fact, the same place, and that the latter is part of Mexico. Chait appended an “update” (not a “correction”), in which he acknowledged the “hasty error” of “skip[ping] over” the word “Baja”—but rather oddly insisted that his “point stands.”

Anyone with basic geographical knowledge could see Chait’s error here, but it would take someone who’d actually read Bromwich’s essay to recognize the deeper error, which was characterizing Bromwich’s point as one about “Obama’s minions” working to defame Putin. This gets the argument exactly wrong, since Bromwich was speculating about elements within the State Department working against Obama’s intentions.

With the help of Chait’s obvious but superficial error, it’s possible to see how this less obvious but more profound error was made. Let me engage in a bit of speculation myself here: Chait seems to have decided before reading Bromwich’s piece that he wanted to write a dismissive post about the latest anti-Obama screed from the left. He skimmed Bromwich’s 10,000 words—the product of months of writing and years of thought—for what seemed like the easiest “gotcha” moment, and spent a few minutes on a snarky takedown post.

Chait’s initial post included at least one other error: he wrote that Bromwich’s piece was not available online, because “Harper’s hates the internet.” Of course, Bromwich’s piece is available to subscribers online, along with every issue of Harper’s Magazine dating back to 1850. Nor is it exactly true that we hate the Internet. But it is true that we hate the kind of Internet-enabled fatuous political point scoring exemplified by Chait’s post.

This is what brings me to my real aim in writing about Chait here, which is not (or not just) schadenfreude at the sight of a critic being hoisted on the petard of his own lazy bad faith. Chait got a lot of attention recently for an essay about the resurgence of political correctness, which he argued is “a system of left-wing ideological repression [that is] antithetical to liberalism.” Above all, Chait concluded, the new political correctness was ineffective, because “bludgeoning” those who disagree with you into “despondent silence” is not, in the long run, the way to win political debates. I was largely in agreement with Chait there, and it is as one who agrees with him on that point that I’d like to speak directly to Chait now.

I’d like to ask you to consider seriously the possibility that dismissive “quick takes” like the one you executed yesterday are themselves a form of center-left ideological repression, that they amount precisely to an effort to bludgeon those who disagree with you into despondent silence rather than engaging with their ideas. I’d like to ask you to read David Bromwich’s piece—the whole thing. Take hours with it, not minutes, and try not to skip over any words in your haste. Doubtless you will find much you disagree with. I’d like you to ask yourself whether, given the obvious laziness with which you perpetrated yesterday’s hit job, you owe it to Bromwich or to your own readers to take the time to articulate those objections rather than finding what you think to be the single weakest point and dismissing it with a few paragraphs of snark. If you don’t feel that you owe this effort to anyone, I’d like you to consider the possibility that, when it comes to the lobotomizing of American political discourse by forces of empty-headed repression, you, Jonathan Chait, are part of the problem.

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