Commentary — May 22, 2015, 1:10 pm

Part of the Problem

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Christopher Beha:

From the November 2019 issue

How to Read the Bible

The gospel according to John (and Karen)

From the May 2019 issue

Winning the Peace

From the March 2019 issue

Mallo My!

Spain’s answer to Knausgaard arrives in English

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Post
Perhaps the World Ends Here·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Climate disaster at Wounded Knee

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today