R.I.P., Liberal Contrarianism

Before #Slatepitch became a punchline, Slate (and others) really did thrive on a certain kind of anti-liberalism. It’s dead now—well, almost.

By Michael Bérubé

Tagged JournalismLiberalismpoliticspublic opinion

It was another time, long ago in a galaxy far, far away—a time of roiling debates throughout the nation, vicious partisan political sniping, and heated personal exchanges. Off campus, a time of political soul-searching on the left, as Democrats in disarray sought a road out of the wilderness; on campus, a time of uncertainty about the direction of the humanities and the purpose of a liberal arts education. On campus and off, a time of unsettling questions about the prevalence of rape and sexual assault at every level of social life. A time when the very terms designating this or that group of people had become semiotically supercharged, so much so that even simple pronouns became treacherous. A time . . .

“Michael,” my dearest and oldest friend exclaimed, rudely bursting into my study before the premise of my essay was even established, “surely you’re not opening with that gambit?”

“What gambit?” I replied, only somewhat disingenuously.

“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about,” he said, giving me the sidelong look I have known since my college days. “You’re about to start an essay about the status of the culture wars, circa 2018, Year Two in the Trumpian calendar, and you’re trying to make it sound as if everything we’re living through now is just a rehash of the early 1990s.”

“And your point would be?” I asked, trying to maintain the faux-naif tone that had served me so well in my youth.

“Aha, see, you just typed ‘in my youth,’” my observant friend observed from over my shoulder. “The early 1990s, when you first appeared on the scene at the height of the ‘political correctness’ nonsense. Those were your salad days, and now you think you’re reliving them, almost a full generation later. Well, it won’t work, I tell you. The crises we’re dealing with now are light years from the stuff you were dealing with then.”

“How so?”

“Hello? The foundations of democracy and the rule of law are crumbling beneath our feet as we speak, and you’re going to suggest this is the same old same old from the days when Lynne Cheney was a thing?”

“Very well,” I said, turning in my chair, and offering my friend a seat and a drink. “If this is going to be a proper debate . . . ”

“A dialogue,” he countered. “It’s more civil.”

“Fine, a dialogue. Then let’s take our proper roles. I’ll be this guy, and you be that guy.”

ILLE: Why do I have to be that guy? Why can’t I be this guy, and you be that guy? I’ve never liked the name “ille.” And I think the whole Latin pronoun thing is silly.

HIC: Which kind of rhymes with ille, my friend.

ILLE: So if it’s good enough for Yeats, it’s good enough for you?

HIC: Damn straight. And you’re ille because I’m the one with the laptop. Besides, you are totally being that guy.

ILLE: That guy how?

HIC: You know, the guy who says, “OMG this crazy Trump came out of nowhere and now he has changed everything and now there are no more facts and nothing matters.” That guy. When in fact, this disaster has been decades in the making. The modern GOP is the result of the relentless radicalization of the National Rifle Association and the evangelical right, and the culture wars of yesteryear are still with us. It’s like World War I resolved nothing, right? And here we are again.

ILLE: Okay, fine. There are continuities; I won’t deny that. But seriously, did you really think in 1991 that by 2018 gay marriage would be common and widely accepted everywhere except among those evangelicals? As late as 2004, anti-gay-marriage ballots were wedge issues in swing states. Now there are gay wedding cakes galore, and we’re debating the status of trans bathrooms. Seriously, that’s progress.

HIC: It is.

ILLE: And you know something about the history of disability, right? Do you remember the open derision with which Reason magazine mocked that access ramp and handicapped parking spaces for that nude beach in Florida? Charles Oliver: “No clothes? No legs? No problem. To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Dade County, Florida, has spent $18,500 to install a ramp to provide wheelchair access to the county’s only nude beach. The county will also have to spend another $30,000 to provide special parking for handicapped nudists.”

HIC: Like it was yesterday. Hell, that nude beach was legendary among the ADA-bashers, wasn’t it? You would think it was the most ridiculous thing in the world.

ILLE: And you would think it bankrupted poor Dade County.

HIC: When in fact the beach was clothing-optional and the most popular beach in the area. A serious tourist attraction. And why shouldn’t people with disabilities go to whatever beach they want in the first place? “No clothes, no legs, no problem.” Comedy gold, right? That ramp was like the equivalent of the hot-McDonald’s-coffee story . . . proof of our crazy over-regulated society, except that everyone who mentioned it got all the details wrong. Cripes. I can’t even begin to imagine anyone ridiculing access ramps today.

ILLE: Kind of proving my point. Plus ça change, plus ça change. It really is a different world. You need to admit as much.

HIC: I don’t know. Honestly I don’t. Even as we speak, Tucker Carlson and Fox News are having an outrage-fest over the fact that some college writing program at Purdue encourages students not to use “man” as a generic term for humans. I mean, come on, right? The Male Chauvinist Class of 1974 called . . . white courtesy phone in the lobby. . . .

ILLE: You cannot be serious. Fox exists precisely to remind the septuagenarian boys that the women’s libbers took all their things. That’s not a reliable index of the state of cultural commentary today.

HIC: Okay, what is? I want this reliable index. I want to subscribe to your newsletter.

ILLE: Here’s your reliable index: the death of the liberal contrarian.

HIC: Come again?

Mickey Kaus was once the #Slatepitch master—you know, “I’m a Democrat, but I hate unions and minorities.” Now he doesn’t even have a career.

ILLE: You know what I mean. Go back into the files of your youth. It’s 1990, 1991. Richard Bernstein of The New York Times is appalled by the campus craziness. It’s like a dictatorship of virtue! Paul Berman discerns the roots of PC: a toxic hybrid strain of post-structuralism and Stalinism! The New York Review of Books reviews Dinesh D’Souza—favorably. The Atlantic actually publishes him.

HIC: Hell, The American Scholar published him. It was like seeing David Duke elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

ILLE: Well, that decision cost Joseph Epstein his job editing that thing.

HIC: A few years too late, no?

ILLE: But still. You know where I’m going with this. As the age of the liberal contrarian reaches maturity in mid-decade, Andrew Sullivan is hawking The Bell Curve at The New Republic, by then known as “even the liberal New Republic.” A few years later, Michael Kelly, having spent his time at TNR fulminating against the liberal hegemony of Heather Has Two Mommies, takes over The Atlantic. Camille Paglia is ubiquitous. Slate emerges as the West Coast, online TNR, and within a few years, the #Slatepitch becomes shorthand for the liberal contrarian hot take. By 1997, it’s like, they may seem innocuous, but maybe Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy are the most corrupt public officials in the history of the republic! Democracy and public decency demand an investigation! That was an actual, real Slate essay by Jacob Weisberg about Herman in February 1997.

HIC: And then what? What changes?

ILLE: What changes, my boy? What changes? Why, everything! Look around you! Mickey Kaus was once the #Slatepitch master—you know, “I’m a Democrat but I hate unions and minorities.” Now he doesn’t even have a career. Paglia lies on the ash heap of history. The Atlantic that once published D’Souza and answered to Kelly is now known as the place where Ta-Nehisi Coates airs his searing critiques of white supremacy.

HIC: His searing neoliberal critiques, you mean. Because if he’s being read and celebrated by white people, you know he’s a sellout. A guy like Cornel West, say, would never accede to that kind of acclaim from white people.

ILLE: Let’s not even. You know perfectly well what I mean. Besides, now The Atlantic will forever be known as the publication that prevented Kevin D. Williamson from being published in any English-language publication except for all the English-language publications that have published his heartbreaking accounts of how he was silenced by the Twitter mob for advocating the hanging of women who have had abortions. But liberal contrarianism, as a mainstream media phenomenon, is dead. The Iraq War killed it. Bush the Younger killed it. The rise of the liberal blogosphere killed it. You know this. Hell, you were part of that blogosphere. You saw what happened. You yourself repeatedly mocked The Washington Post’s senior liberal-contrarian-in-residence, Richard Cohen, with a mighty bloggy mockery: You accused him, with some justice, of using up all the ways a person could be wrong. You were there for the origins of the jokes about Kaus, the ones involving goats. You witnessed the emergence of a kind of progressive-left snark that gave us Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Rachel Maddow. You know this is not the media environment of 30 years ago.

HIC: Right. It’s got Breitbart and Alex Jones, both with direct lines to the Oval Office.

ILLE: Oh, no question the right has its own networks, connecting the sludge of blogs like Red State and Gateway Pundit to the desk of Sean Hannity. But that was true even when Matt Drudge was in charge of the sludgengeschicte. That’s not the point.

HIC: Then what the hell is the point? You think the emergence of the liberal blogosphere was a good thing? It gave us goddamn Glenn Greenwald, Vladimir Putin’s favorite aide-de-camp (except maybe for Stephen Cohen, who’s been working that beat a bit longer), and Tucker Carlson’s BFF on Fox. It gave us the manic progressives of FireDogLake, who spent the first two years of Obama’s presidency howling that He. Didn’t. Even. Try. to get single-payer health care by giving a series of stirring speeches using the bully pulpit and moving the Overton Window and simply making 60 senators agree with him by the sheer power of his eloquence.

ILLE: For that I don’t blame the blogosphere. I blame Aaron Sorkin. That’s his theory of government at work there.

HIC: Fair enough. But the reason it took hold among the so-called liberal-left “netroots” is that a lot of those people were total political neophytes. Greenwald admitted as much in his breakthrough book, How Would a Patriot Act?: “I never voted for George W. Bush—or for any of his political opponents. I believed that voting was not particularly important. Our country, it seemed to me, was essentially on the right track. . . . I was never sufficiently moved to become engaged in the electoral process.” Seriously. He slept through the stolen election of 2000, secure in the knowledge that everything was humming along just fine. Then all of a sudden he realizes there are some “theories of unlimited presidential power” floating around in the Bush Administration, and lo! He wakes up. Why, there is something amiss! And Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake—same deal. No previous history of political involvement, no substantial awareness of how the American political system actually works. The biggest megastars of the left blogosphere were total noobs. Oh, for the heady days when all we wanted was for Ned Lamont to unseat Joe Lieberman! When we thought Anthony Weiner was the straight-talking, charismatic liberal firebrand we needed!

ILLE: Stop. Just stop. This hurts.

HIC: No pain, no gain, my friend. Because you know what happened in 2008. The new guy gets in, and whoa, we’re not getting single payer after all, even though he didn’t campaign on that, and he’s using drones and all kinds of executive powers, just like he said he would, and oh, oh, the betrayal! It’s as if he looked Greenwald and Hamsher straight in the eyes and said, “I’ve come to break your hearts.”

ILLE: OK, I’ll give you Greenwald. Good lord, the man’s political illiteracy is exceeded only by his sense of self-righteousness. But think of the wonks who made their way into national publications from that blogosphere. People you would never have heard of but for that grassroots architecture. Scott Lemieux. Amanda Marcotte. Lindsay Beyerstein. Roxanne Cooper. Roy Edroso. Jessica Valenti. Matt Yglesias. Kevin Drum. They came from the bloggy swamps, and now they write for The American Prospect and Slate and Salon and Raw Story and In These Times and the Village Voice and Mother Jones and the Grauniad, I mean The Guardian; and Ezra Klein, for goodness’ sake. Ezra Klein who went from the earliest incarnation of the blog Pandagon with his friend Jesse Taylor, in what, 2004, to the Vox media empire he presides over today. This was a grassroots phenomenon, involving none of the traditional dead-tree-network connections of yesteryear.

Look at poor Katie Roiphe. She publishes her big takedown of #MeToo in Harper’s, and it’s even more of a nothingburger than the Devin Nunes memo.

HIC: Yep, and Klein was hated by the manic-progressive netroots. Maybe that was a crabs-in-the-barrel phenomenon. Maybe it was lefter-than-thou-ism, because Ezra always was a straight-up liberal wonk. But I have to say, the manic progressive blogosphere churned out the weirdest forms of lefter-than-thou-ism I have ever seen.

ILLE: How so?

HIC: Oh, goodness, it was the shallowest form of opportunism in the history of opportunities. There was a whole passel of FireDogLake and Corrente types and people with noms de blogs like Yves Smith (Susan Webber IRL) and Lambert Strether (real name unknown, but obviously someone familiar with Henry James’s The Ambassadors) who spent the 2008 primaries pretending that Hillary Clinton was a working-class hero, if not the reincarnation of Joe Hill, and that the new guy was neoliberal evil incarnate . . . and who then spent the 2016 primaries screaming that Hillary Clinton was the most neoliberalest evilest candidate ever, and that only Bernie could save us. And I say this as someone who voted for Sanders in the primary. There was only one consistent theme among these people: Democratic Party delenda est.

ILLE: I think that was Lemieux’s line, my friend. You probably owe him some royalties. Let it not be said that he and the crew of the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog didn’t do everything they could, in the blogosphere, to beat back the foolishness of the PUMAs in 2008 and the Bernie-or-Busters in 2016 and the 18 remaining followers of Dr. Jill Stein today.

HIC: Speaking of which. We have established this much as a political fact in the United States of America: Fully 2 to 3 percent of the electorate is made up of so-called “progressives” and “leftists” who will do their part to elect reactionaries, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the actual candidates on the ballot. This is a pattern unbroken in 50 years of lefter-than-thou-ism and hallucinations of a third major party. Only this time, the Republicans actually nominated Moloch himself, a candidate who promised to eat live babies while groping underage beauty pageant contestants and running the U.S. government as a family kleptocracy. And still, an appreciable chunk of the left, just enough to make a difference in close elections, found its reasons to vote for the guy who didn’t know what Aleppo was, or to vote for the quack who thinks that “quantitative easing” can forgive student loans, or to just stay home. This is a permanent political fact. Two to 3 percent of our ostensibly politically literate fellow citizens who profess a faith in social justice will help to elect presidents dedicated to realizing a future in which a boot stamps on a human face forever.

ILLE: Because Hillary was going to start World War III, of course. Over Syria, I believe?

HIC: When in fact the United States is totally to blame for the carnage in Syria, and criticism of Putin and Russia is Cold War redbaiting, and . . . and . . . I can’t even parody this crap anymore. It’s like the Manichean Left read my book The Left at War and decided, “That’s it! We need to be even more Manichean! Every enemy of the imperialist Yankee enemy is my friend.” It’s neither tragedy nor farce at this point. How bad has it gotten? One day Donald Trump tweets that the Russia investigation is just a way for Democrats to avoid coming to terms with the fact that Hillary ran a bad campaign (because of course her campaign was worse than Kerry’s and Gore’s and never mind the popular vote), and the next day Greenwald and Jacobin are saying the same exact thing: The whole “Russian interference” thing is a distraction from Hillary’s horrible, no-good, corporate neoliberalism. You have to hand it to them, I suppose—no one, until now, had realized that the best way to resist an authoritarian lunatic was to repeat his utterances word for word . . .

Damn. Where were we again? Agreeing with my arguments about the long-term continuities in American politics, I believe?

ILLE: No. Arguing about the disappearance of liberal contrarians, may they rest in peace.

HIC: You really think the professional liberal contrarian is a thing of the past?

ILLE: I know it is. Look at poor Katie Roiphe. The last time there was a national debate about sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual mores, she was the go-to contrarian. The liberal media establishment loved her. Those guys needed a smart young woman to come along and question date rape statistics and roll her eyes at Take Back the Night, and Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers couldn’t do it by themselves, you know? Katie was 20 percent more hip. And now look at her. She publishes her big takedown of #MeToo in Harper’s, and it’s even more nothing of a nothingburger than the Devin Nunes memo. Rebecca Traister takes it apart even before the ink is dry, and for precisely the right reasons: Because Roiphe was playing that old canard, “I am being silenced by the new orthodoxy,” when in fact, as Traister pointed out, nobody is silencing Roiphe about anything (she’s being published in Harper’s!); people just aren’t giving her the credence she took for granted 25 years ago. Allow me to quote the piece: “[T]he dynamic Roiphe is describing is not really about being muzzled; it’s about speaking publicly with the understanding that you will likely be challenged on what you say, and in some cases profanely, nastily, even disrespectfully.” No one is listening anymore to people who behave as if principled criticism of their work violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and their United Nations-guaranteed right not to be made to feel uncomfortable at dinner parties. That’s how you know the whole PC era is over.

HIC: Okay, I’ll give you that much. The Roiphe essay totally bombed. And apparently Harper’s is still cleaning up the shrapnel. Here, let me pour you another drink. Let’s toast to the irrelevance of Roiphe and Paglia and Sommers, and to the Rise of the Rebeccas—Traister, and Solnit. National treasures, both of them.

ILLE: So. You see my point, right?

HIC: I see it, yes. But I have not granted it.

ILLE: Come again?

HIC: Because I haven’t yet played my trump card.

ILLE: I see what you did there.

HIC: Two words, my friend. Mark. Lilla.

ILLE: Oh, please no.

HIC: Right?

ILLE: I really don’t want to go there.

HIC: For good reason!

ILLE: Do you want me to play devil’s advocate on this one?

HIC: Sure. At whatever cost to your soul. Bring it.

ILLE: All right, fine. Tell me what’s wrong with Lilla’s diagnosis of Democrats’ electoral woes: “Rather than concentrate on the daily task of winning over people at the local level, they have concentrated on the national media and invested their energies in trying to win the presidency every four years. And once they do, they expect Daddy to solve all the country’s problems, oblivious to the fact that without support in Congress and the states a president under our system can accomplish very little.”

HIC: That is not wrong at all. Anyone who has followed the Democratic Party over the past 30 years and who has a functioning sensorium knows that the party has atrophied at the state and local levels. Hell, Republicans are this far away from being able to call a constitutional convention and repeal all the amendments except the Second. But blaming that on “identity politics,” as Lilla does, doesn’t make a fraction of a lick of sense. Take this bit, for instance: “[I]f identity liberals were thinking politically, not pseudo-politically, they would concentrate on turning that around at the local level, not on organizing yet another March on Washington or preparing yet another federal court brief.” I can take or leave some marches, sure, but you’re writing a book in the early days of the Trump Administration and you decide to piss on the women’s marches that constituted the first mass public show of resistance to the guy? More important, what’s this about “preparing another federal court brief”? Only someone with no understanding of American politics, someone even less literate about the separation of powers than Glenn Greenwald, would be so cavalierly dismissive of the judicial system.

Conservatives never make this mistake. Never. They run buffoons, jokers, miscreants, ignoramuses, jackasses, sexual predators, and every variety of incompetent for elective office, but when it comes to the judiciary, they are deadly serious. They know the federal bench is not a place for their buffoons—it is reserved for their evil geniuses. Just think of the massive freak-out on the right when Bush floated the idea of appointing Harriet Myers to the Supreme Court in place of one of the Scalian androids the Federalist Society had been grooming for years. Please. Tell me again, after National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, after Shelby County v. Holder, after Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, how preparing federal court briefs is a distraction and a waste of time.

ILLE: I . . . I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think of the courts with ambivalence. Yes, liberals won some landmark victories, but at what cost?

HIC: At what cost? Seriously, look at this: “Most foolishly, liberals grew increasingly reliant on the courts to circumvent the legislative process when it failed to deliver what they wanted (and I wanted too). . . .  Liberals lost the habit of taking the temperature of public opinion, building consensus, and taking small steps.” You know where this nonsense comes from? It comes straight from the keyboard of David Brooks. April 2005: “Justice Harry Blackmun did more inadvertent damage to our democracy than any other 20th-century American. When he and his Supreme Court colleagues issued the Roe v. Wade decision, they set off a cycle of political viciousness and counter-viciousness that has poisoned public life ever since, and now threatens to destroy the Senate as we know it. When Blackmun wrote the Roe decision, it took the abortion issue out of the legislatures and put it into the courts. If it had remained in the legislatures, we would have seen a series of state-by-state compromises reflecting the views of the centrist majority that’s always existed on this issue. These legislative compromises wouldn’t have pleased everyone, but would have been regarded as legitimate. . . Liberals lost touch with working-class Americans because they never had to have a conversation about values with those voters; they could just rely on the courts to impose their views.”

Just substitute “Warren” and “Brown v. Board” or “Loving v. Virginia” for “Blackmun” and “Roe v. Wade” and you’ll see how mind-numbingly foolish this argument is. Goddammit, more than 80 percent of Americans opposed inter­racial marriage in 1967 when Loving v. Virginia was handed down. Were liberals supposed to defer to public opinion on interracial marriage lest they lose touch with “working-class Americans”?

ILLE: I don’t think it’s entirely fair to suggest that a 50-years-ago version of Lilla would have been uneasy with a decision striking down the illegality of interracial marriage.

HIC: Maybe not. But that’s the logic at work here. When you start talking about liberals using the courts to “circumvent” the legislative process instead of “taking small steps,” you are very definitely reading from the wrong playbook. And that’s as politely as I can put it. Sensible centrist white guys really need to remember how many of their white brothers and sisters were not ready for integration. And people who call themselves liberals really need to stop thinking of the judiciary as an illegitimate vehicle for social change. The courts aren’t the ideal vehicle, no. Or the only vehicle. But writing them off entirely, as Lilla does, is just ridiculous.

ILLE: Tell you what. Why don’t you just get all your Lilla complaints off your chest. Unburden yourself. Please. Vent away.

HIC: Thank you, my friend. Since we have the book right in front of us, shall we review some of its most ill-advised passages? Here, turn to page 35, if you will. This is Lilla on FDR’s four freedoms: “This vision filled three generations of liberals with confidence, hope, pride, and a spirit of self-sacrifice. And patriotism. They had no problem standing for the national anthem.” Again, leaving aside the question of the immediate occasion—as if this is the right time for soi-disant liberals to be kicking Colin Kaepernick to the curb—how historically ill-informed is this? Is Professor Lilla acquainted with one Jackie Robinson, who wrote, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world”? Does he have access to an Internet or a televisual device that can acquaint him with John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the Olympic medal stand in 1968?

Now to page 117. “Democratic politics is about persuasion, not self-expression. I’m here, I’m queer will never provoke more than a pat on the head or a roll of the eyes.” Where to start? Let’s start with the pronoun. It’s “we,” not “I.” It’s a collective statement made by gay people taking part in a public demonstration, it’s not some kind of solipsistic declaration made by the flamboyantly dressed guy who shows up late to the dinner party. (But that is Lilla’s strategy throughout—to cast “identity liberals” as narcissists incapable of thinking of the common good.) More to the point, it leaves out the demand: Get used to it. “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” Lilla repeatedly insists that he is happy that so many, though not all, Americans did indeed get used to it. You would think he would refrain from rolling his eyes at those among his fellow citizens who engage in same-sex relations, never mind mentally patting them on the head.

Moving ahead to page 118. Here we encounter the claim that—hey, don’t get me wrong, I believe a woman should have the right to control her own body, I’m not opposed to reproductive rights or anything, but . . . the Democrats just have to stop being so rigid about this abortion thing. They should be more like Republicans—a big tent on abortion rights, with lots of rigorously debated alternatives! Why, did you know that the Democrats are so intransigent on abortion that they did not let Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey Sr. speak at the Democratic National Convention in 1992?

ILLE: Oh, God, not the Casey-at-the-DNC canard. Jesus H. Christ in a chicken basket, the sell-by date for that one expired more than a decade ago.

HIC: You would think. But then, you would underestimate the resilience of the Democratic Party’s concern trolls, for whom Casey will always be a martyr—even though he hadn’t endorsed the Clinton/Gore ticket and proceeded to decline to campaign for them in Pennsylvania. You want to tell me the liberal contrarian is dead? You want me to believe that Will Saletan’s “We can be pro-choice only if we acknowledge that abortion is really, really icky and disgusting and wrong and should be made even harder to obtain” schtick has been interred? Hah. Welcome to the world of zombie trolls. Zombie trolls are very hard to kill, I assure you.

ILLE: Okay, at this point, I’ve got nothing. I am Glaucon to your Socrates. Please proceed.

HIC: And I haven’t even gotten to page 129, where Lilla accuses Black Lives Matter of engaging in “Mau Mau tactics.” I assure you I am not making this up. As sheer gratuitous culture-war insults go, I am thinking of the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., telling his readers in 1992 that “The West needs no lectures on the superior virtue of those ‘sun people’ who sustained slavery until Western imperialism abolished it.”

ILLE: But wasn’t “sun people” a deservedly dismissive citation of CCNY professor Leonard Jeffries’s crackpot “sun people/ ice people” theory?

HIC: Yeah, but the problem isn’t the term “sun people.” The problem is blaming black folk for sustaining slavery.

ILLE: Still, that is a low blow. Lilla doesn’t go there.

HIC: I prefer to consider it an unforced error on Lilla’s part. Really, “Mau Mau tactics.” Who are the flak catchers these days, I wonder? But wait. Flip back to the beginning of the book. Page nine. I promise you this is my favorite sentence in the entire book. “A recurring image of identity liberalism is that of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colors, producing a rainbow. That says it all.” That says it all. Yes, well, let’s start with the fact that the image of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colors comes from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, not from the rainbow flag or the Rainbow Coalition. Dude, don’t bogart that joint, my friend. Then let’s reflect—I mean, refract—on the fact that the rainbow coalition is in fact an accurate image of the Democrats’ voting constituency, without which Roy Moore would be Alabama’s junior senator today.

ILLE: Maybe it’s just a version of e pluribus unum?

HIC: Maybe, but that was Schlesinger’s complaint as well, so I think the comparison to Schlesinger is entirely apt. And what to make of the tin-ear cluelessness of “Equal protection under the law is not a hard principle to convince Americans of”? By Grabthar’s Hammer, that is precisely the principle against which millions of Americans fight whenever it is applied to women and to racial and sexual minorities. That line is straight out of Paul Berman’s playbook— you know, the spiel that goes come, come; all good people agree on what is obviously right and just, but these PC identitarians go too far, too far, I say.

ILLE: Okay, I understand your frustration. The late great Ellen Willis found the League of Concerned White Guys exasperating beyond measure back in the day, and I suppose it is a mercy that she is not around to witness the reunion. But he does make one argument that hits close to home for straight cis white guys like you and me: “Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. Particular groups—today the transgendered—are given temporary totemic significance.” You know this is true. What do you make of it?

HIC: Oh, boo-hoo. Straight cis white guys don’t get to opine about everything. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Listen, I saw this happen at a post-election event at Penn State. About 200 students and faculty jammed into an auditorium to participate in a panel discussion of What It All Means, and this one white young man in the crowd stood up, took the mic, and said that although everyone he knows talks about “safe spaces,” still, there are times and places on campus when he is made to feel uncomfortable simply because he is a white guy. And a young black woman responded by saying, yeah, you should be uncomfortable sometimes, STFU and sit down. It was a painful moment for him, you know? Because most white guys aren’t used to nonwhite nonguys telling them to be quiet for a change.

ILLE: And you think that’s a good thing? You think that someone’s identity does or does not authorize them to speak about matters that concern us all? Isn’t it possible that that young woman sent that young man scurrying off to Fox News or Breitbart for succor?

As I write, I see two Times op-eds devoted to defending Christina Hoff Sommers, one of them by liberal-contrarian- in-training Bari Weiss.

HIC: Maybe so. Maybe some easily bruised white guys—snowflakes, perhaps?—rush to the arms of Sean Hannity whenever a black woman with an opinion gets in their grill. Or maybe they don’t totally freak out, and merely sign up for monthly newsletters from Jordan Peterson or Jonathan Haidt. But then again, maybe some thoughtful white guys might say, wait, you know, I’m not nearly as vulnerable in most social situations as black women or trans folk or international students or DREAMers. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for me to chill and listen to them for a bit. I know I’ve been spending more time lately checking out people like Jelani Cobb and Roxane Gay and Jamelle Bouie and Melissa Harris-Perry. Maybe they should too.

Look. Lilla talks about “campuses that are largely detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country—and in particular from the sorts of people who once were the foundation of the Democratic Party.” Again, this is David Brooks telling the elites they don’t know how to talk to the regular people at the Applebee’s salad bar.

ILLE: Um . . . Applebee’s doesn’t have a salad bar.

HIC: That’s the point, my friend. Anyone who has actually been to an Applebee’s knows that. And I teach in the heart of Trump country, as do my colleagues at some of the great Midwestern public universities—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Purdue; never mind the major schools of the South. We have thousands of international students, most of them from East Asia. And you know what? The Chinese students will tell you (if they get to the point of trusting you) that it is a dead certainty that at some point during their time in this fair land, someone will angrily admonish them to speak English. This year, a couple of Chinese students at Penn State reported one of those incidents to campus officials, and the only reason they reported it to anyone (so routine is the occurrence) was that they were shocked at how much profanity was involved—from someone with a small child in tow. Were those international students engaging in identity politics, do you think?

ILLE: Okay, fine. I take the point. But I have one last sally. Let’s say Kimberly Peirce, the director of the acclaimed 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, comes to the People’s Republic of Reed College. And she is greeted by trans students who are outraged that the film cast Hilary Swank as the young transgender person Brandon Teena and even more outraged that Peirce herself is merely lesbian and “gender fluid” rather than properly trans. They scream “bitch” at her and put up posters saying “Fuck this cis white bitch.” And let’s even say that this is not the most important or even the 38th most important thing to happen on an American campus in the past ten years. Even still. Surely this is not okay with you?

HIC: It is not. I would imagine, in fact, that even people dogmatically opposed to the idea of universal moral principles might entertain the thought that “Fuck this cis white bitch” is never an acceptable response to anything, let alone a plausible speech act with which to address the director of a trans-friendly film many years ahead of its time. Although I have to say I am perversely pleased to have lived so long as to see this day, when Boys Don’t Cry is denounced as transphobic, along with Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

ILLE: Stop dodging the question.

HIC: I’m not. I’m as appalled as you are that 19-year-olds don’t have any sense of historical context. But you know what? If I try to tell them how mistaken they are, or how straight-up misogynist it is to be saying “Fuck this cis white bitch,” they’re going to write me off as a grumpy old white guy (straight, cis, tenured, etc.) telling them to get off the lawn. Whereas if a renowned gender-non conforming scholar like Jack Halberstam responds to the protests, the aggrieved students might more readily understand that they are dealing with someone who has walked the walk, who does not have to check off any “ally” boxes. For the record, Halberstam’s response to the protest at Bully Bloggers (“Hiding the Tears in My Eyes—BOYS DON’T CRY—A Legacy”) was really brilliant. It gave due respect to the students, acknowledging that they raised “interesting critiques and queries” that were “worthy of conversation in their own right,” but it nevertheless insisted that “spending time and energy protesting the work of an extremely important queer filmmaker is not only wasteful, it is morally bankrupt and misses the true danger of our historical moment.” (It was posted a month after Trump’s election.)

Now, of course you could say that if I’m outsourcing my critique of the Reed protest to Jack Halberstam, I’m giving in to the logic of identity politics. But as Earth, Wind & Fire sang in “Critique of Practical Reason,” that’s the way of the world. Some people are going to have more credibility on some subjects than others, and sometimes their identities are going to be part of that credibility, because sometimes, perhaps often, those identities will entail distinct social and political experiences that you and I don’t have. Get used to it.

ILLE: Very well. What then shall we say of the once and future liberal contrarian?

HIC: Oh, there will be a ready market for liberal contrarianism for the rest of our natural lives, and perhaps even for our artificially extended lives when we are downloaded into the matrix of self-driving cars. Even as I type, I see two New York Times op-eds devoted to defending Christina Hoff Sommers from the campus hordes, one of them by young liberal-contrarian-in-training Bari Weiss. You remember that big 1995 Times Magazine spread on the new renegade conservative intellectuals, with Laura Ingraham in a leopard skirt? Someone ought to get Weiss to do a big Times Magazine spread on the new renegade conservative inellectuals. They could call it “The Counter Counterculture of the Intellectual Umbrageous Web,” or something like that. Seriously, I keep having to check the decade hand on my watch to be sure I haven’t been sucked into one of those nasty hot tub time machines. But hey, the dinosaurs hung around for almost 200 million years. Yet today, there is something of a global consensus that they were dinosaurs. That gives me hope.

ILLE: Hope. For change?

HIC: For evolution. Let it lead us where it will.

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Michael Bérubé is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University and the author, most recently, of Life as Jamie Knows It: An Exceptional Child Grows Up (Beacon, 2016).

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