Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Jonathan Chait is strongly (but selectively) offended by Islamophobia

Jonathan Chait recently took up the subject of religious bigotry in the GOP making his points with characteristic forcefulness:
How Conservatives Explain Away Republican Islamophobia
Donald Trump’s candidacy exposed a burning, and heretofore mostly concealed, resentment of immigrants among large segments of the Republican base. As the campaign has proceeded, it has exposed a second related resentment, which Republicans have only barely concealed: paranoia and hate against Muslim-Americans. Ben Carson’s assertion yesterday that a Muslim should not be allowed to serve as president — chilling in its mild, almost sleepy frankness — laid bare a majority sentiment among his party’s voters. Right-wing Islamophobia provides a new, mainly untapped source of populist resentment into which Trump, Carson, and several other social conservatives can tap. It is also a source of embarrassment for party elites committed to the delusion that their party is mostly innocent of bigotry. 
It's a well-written piece -- blunt and pithy play to Chait's strengths -- but it's also a bit curious to those with long memories (or at least, with access to Google).

Though he's been with New York for quite a while now, Jonathan Chait will always be associated with the New Republic (a legacy he continues to defend proudly). Unfortunately, TNR, in turn, is associated with things like this (Max Fisher via Brad DeLong)

But Hughes' predecessor, Marty Peretz, did much worse. In the years of Peretz's ownership, from 1974 to 2007 and then partially until 2012, the sewing machine fortune heir gave himself the title of editor-in-chief and regular space in the magazine and on its website, which he frequently used to issue rants that were breathtaking in their overt racism. The columns typically came during periods of turmoil for the minorities he targeted: often blacks and Latinos, later focusing especially on Muslims and Arabs.

The overwhelmingly white writers and editors who worked for Peretz knew his work was monstrous, and often struggled over the morality of accepting his money (as did I, during my brief internship there). But none ever resigned en masse as they did over the firing of two white male editors today. That fact is just a particularly egregious example of a much larger problem among the elite Beltway publications: a lack of diversity and a begrudging tolerance of racism that go hand-in-hand.
Here are the sorts of things that Peretz wrote or said over the years; all but the speeches here ran on the New Republic's pages or website.

Quoted speaking on the 'cultural deficiencies' of 'the black population':
Citing statistics on out-of-wedlock births among blacks, Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, said, 'So many in the black population are afflicted by cultural deficiencies.' Asked what he meant, Peretz responded, 'I would guess that in the ghetto a lot of mothers don't appreciate the importance of schooling.' Mfume challenged Peretz, saying, 'You can't really believe that. Every mother wants the best for their children.' Peretz agreed, then added, 'But a mother who is on crack is in no position to help her children get through school.' Some in the audience of 2,600 young Jewish leaders hissed at Peretz's remarks.
Writing on the 'lives of Africans':
The truth is that no one has ever really cared about the lives of Africans in Africa unless those lives are taken out by whites. No one has cared, not even African Americans like [Jesse] Jackson and [Susan] Rice. Frankly -- I have not a scintilla of evidence for this but I do have my instincts and my grasp of his corruptibility -- I suspect that Jackson was let in on the diamond trade or some other smarmy commerce.
Writing on the 'deficiencies' of 'Latin society':
Well, I am extremely pessimistic about Mexican-American relations, not because the U.S. had done anything specifically wrong to our southern neighbor but because a (now not quite so) wealthy country has as its abutter a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counter-culture and increasingly violent modes of conflict.
By far his worst screeds, though, were reserved for Muslims and Arabs, whom he famously argued should all be stripped of free speech rights:
But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imaam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
On the 'higher standards of civilization' that 'we' (that most telling pronoun) hold than do Muslims:
I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) 'atrocities.' They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn't comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan. And the truth is that we are less and less shocked by the mass death-happenings in the world of Islam. Yes, that's the bitter truth. Frankly, even I--cynic that I am--was shocked in the beginning by the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq. But I am no longer surprised. And neither are you.
And no one resigned — including me, while I was an intern at the magazine for four months. Though I was unpaid, I eagerly accepted the resume-boosting prestige that came from working there. And, like the rest of the staff, I did it knowing it meant turning a blind eye to Peretz's frequent screeds on the magazine's website, fully aware that they were not just the crazy rants of an old racist but were in fact palpably damaging to the minority families who had to live in a society that was that much more intolerant because Peretz enjoyed a platform that legitimized his views.
Chait was with the magazine for much longer than Fisher and he sometime gave his boss more than implicit support. For example, when Matt Yglesias objected to Peretz's claim in 2010 that:
And the truth is that it is not yet clear in the president’s head–or he is not yet being candid (which is my substitute for “frank” and “honest”)–that you can’t have a true view of routine mass murder in the contemporary world without having quite a harsh view of Islam today.
Chait immediately mounted a defense -- And I do mean immediately. Both appeared on January the eighth -- in a post with a title that was less of joke than Chait intended (My Suck-Up of The Day). I'm not going to get into the details of the exchange. You can follow the links if you're curious, but the real importance lies in the pattern. Peretz had been at this since the seventies. This wasn't a case of a subtle argument being taken out of context. Chait knew that Yglesias was simply pointing out the latest expression of Peretz' racism and religious bigotry and he knew that, by arguing with Yglesias, he was providing cover for his editor-in-chief.

All of which is, of course, old news, which begs the question of why bother to retell it. Peretz isn't worth bothering with. He's not the first unpublishable writer to buy his way into print with his wife's money and he will he be the last. Nor is Chait's part that notable; it wasn't that big of a lapse and the overall quality of his work is exceptional (this incident aside, I am far more impressed with him than I am with Yglesias).

What's important about this and the other reaction-to-Peretz stories is the role that social dynamics play. The journalistic establishment is filled with people who liked and/or felt obligated to Marty Peretz. This allowed him to get away with statements and opinions that otherwise would have been roundly condemned.

And if you think that's an isolated case, you haven't been paying attention.


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