The last two lines of Chait’s reply to his critics, a post entitled “Obama, Racism, and the Presumption of Innocence,” which I had not read before writing on “The Sanity of Chait’s ‘Complete Insanity,'” are as follows1:
There’s no contradiction between grasping the deep and continuing power of white supremacy in American politics and culture while still affording one’s opponents a basic presumption of fairness. One might even call this an important part of the definition of liberalism.
Chait feels a need to remind us, especially his colleagues and presumably their supporters, that what he terms a “presumption of fairness” – as a reciprocal presumption of good faith, justifying equal right to speak, to be heard, and to have one’s ideas or proposals discussed on their own merits – might, as he writes, “even” be called “an important part of the definition of liberalism.” That “even” suggests tentativeness or uncertainty of some kind, either on Chait’s part in regard to the idea, or, if not on the idea then about the readiness of his mainly liberal (or “liberal”) audience to receive it, and even though the objective of fairness – as “the quality of making judgments that are free from discrimination” – rather than being a mere “important part of the definition of liberalism” comes close to summarizing the entirety of the modern liberal project. A commitment to fairness, to the rule of reason without prejudice, or equally to and for all, is the central characteristic of the social order and typical regime forms that liberalism puts on offer, and that it attempts to reinforce and expand. As a basis for dialogue or for construction of a space for public discussion of policy, “fairness” recapitulates the “original position” separate from particular interests2, under the “categorical imperative.” It connects contemporary progressive or social liberalism to any coherent and consequential doctrine of universal human rights. It is also, not incidentally, the impetus for any movement against bigotry, and for the critique of the failures of actual liberals from the perspective of such a movement.
Chait did begin by saying “there’s no contradiction” between a commitment to fairness and a “grasp” of white supremacy, but he was, of course, in fact acknowledging a contradiction between the liberal and racial concepts, and was in no way denying a history of America in war and peace in which this contradiction has been a very real or objective, not a merely conceptual contradiction. Chait understands the racial principle, racism as what he calls the “primal grievance” of American politics, to stand as a counter-principle to the liberal society as a society of universal equality. He must also understand that any American political discussion at all will be shaped concretely by that “deep and continuing” influence to which he referred and to which he has devoted substantial attention. White supremacy is, in short, unfair, and Chait clearly understands that fact, and yet he seems to be calling for a toleration of it as indispensable under a doctrine of fairness. To Chait, the reason that this contradiction must not be treated as an insuperable contradiction, that we must seek fairness and be seen to do so, that we must operate under rules and presumptions of fairness even where fairness does not in fact rule, is for the sake of a fair discussion – which, given that such fair discussion is, or so one might even say, definitional for liberalism, means for the sake of the liberal possibility.
When my friend root_e and Chait’s recent debate opponent Ta-Nehisi Coates read statements – by white men, it becomes relevant to note – seeming to grant white supremacism a free pass, they see us giving the lie to the liberal promise, exposing a shameful objective reality of the liberal ideal. They also may reasonably suspect that this particular pass is an easier one for us to hand out than it may be for them. Reasonable, sane, necessary, or just convenient, the statement insisting on fairness for objective white supremacists seems to recapitulate the same old Hobson’s choice: You can either enjoy the privilege of accepting our greater privilege on the terms we are willing to offer, or you can suffer it anyway, just without being consulted. In the meantime, look how much more congenially white supremacist we are than the other white supremacists, how carefully we seem to listen to you before setting your views aside, how we applaud and praise you, before moving on to the serious business of running things, or, on the off chance we allow one of you to take an executive position, to the business of preventing things from being too well run. In a familiarly inexorable way, a theory of freedom and equality turns into a practice of the denial or at best the deferral of freedom and of the indefinite maintenance of privilege. The long and seemingly completely unreasonable and contradictory association of the liberty interest and the slavery or racist or white supremacist interest (among other interests) is shown to be far from an odd coincidence or strange irony: It is revealed to be a necessary and universal result of liberalism’s application in practice, its transparency to the free expression of pre-existing deformities, of distorted opinion, unregenerate prejudice, and radically unequal material power, as continually re-authorized, re-extended, and re-produced by a congenitally self-falsifying democratic process. Liberalism thus seems to offer a principle of the dissolution of privilege, but only alongside an inherent incapacity to dislodge it, and a stubborn willingness to defend it.3
The question remains difficult for us to discuss. First, it is difficult to investigate consequentially without seeming to attack or undermine the moral bases of our social order as well as of efforts to improve it, including those based on a liberal critique of liberalism: Any such investigation is therefore dangerous, and not just intellectually dangerous, and especially for the investigator, a possibility that may have begun to dawn on Chait himself, thus some recent tweets in which he notes a telltale division of reaction between what his comrades communicate to him in private and what they will say about his work in public:
Reaction to my cover story is unusual in two ways. 1) I’ve gotten more private messages of agreement than [on] anything I’ve written before… 2) High profile disagreements that lack substantive disagreement ([from Brian Beutler and Jamelle Bouie]). Not sure what to make of it.4
Perhaps better not to make too much of it or seek too much certainty, since whatever can be made of it may be something else one may prefer kept private. The problem is further difficult to discuss because the discussion encounters so many self-replicating contradictions and paradoxes, producing a seemingly highly unreasonable discussion of reasonable discussion, suggestive of a self-diagnosis of schizoidal disorder in necessarily schizoidally disordered language. Finally, even setting aside, as if one ever really could, the dangers to one’s own reputation or interest, and further setting aside, as if it might really be possible to do so, the bias in favor of non-contradictory logic, the problem would still remain supremely difficult to discuss because all of its significant elements are contestable and, by now, will be attached to complex and evolving histories of contestation.5
Before such a difficult prospect, one might choose to go forward only with some kind of guarantee or at least a reasonable hope of safety. Chait’s post includes a phrase that refers to such a guarantee that one might be heard in full on one’s own behalf, whatever the suspicions or even the sure belief of one’s opponents, though “Presumption of Innocence,” which of course possesses a special legal as well as ethical meaning and a long and significant history in its own right, appears only in the post’s title, nowhere else. One might say it has a privileged position, but no prerogatives. Within the body of the post, the legal-ethical concept comes into play only indirectly, in reference to an operative “presumption of guilt”: of racism on the part of anyone accused of it, according to Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, whose “edgy” treatment of Chait on her television show seems to have followed through on this position (and may point to what Chait or we might consider making of the public versus private response to him from friends). Nor does the phrase appear in Chait’s long cover story on the politics of race, or anywhere in Chait’s recent multi-post debate with the aforementioned Mr. Coates on racial politics. It would be tempting to ascribe the oddly unsupported reference to the vagaries of headlines and deadlines, and, whatever the explanation, to suggest that, while a discussion of presumption of innocence as a doctrine under pressure might be worth reading, Chait’s post does not qualify. Yet the phrase belongs in this discussion. For liberalism as a philosophy or coherent theory, the presumption of innocence, the presumption of good faith, the presumption of fairness or fair dealing, and finally all doctrines of equal rights and freedoms are interconnected and interdependent, while the continual recurrence of controversies where such presumption is found dispensable, under what Michelle Goldberg recently called “the return of the anti-liberal left,” suggests that the character of such liberal tenets as different aspects or facets of the same political and ethical construct either is not well understood on the left today, or that, to whatever extent it is understood, it is not accepted: Thus the “even” or “one might even.”6
We wonder and are forced to ask, extending Goldberg’s argument, just how “liberal” today’s liberal left is, just how liberal it wants to be, just how liberal it knows how to be. Is it true that Chait and even more (and more even) his colleagues (and my friend root_e) labor under doubt as to the centrality of the concept of fairness, properly or broadly understood, to the liberal project? If they do, then what does it mean to them to be “liberal,” or, to those who reject the label, to claim not to be? Is there any conceptual coherency, or dependability, to modern American liberalism at all, or is it just a set of leftist sentiments or “progressive” stances jumbled together? In the absence of satisfactory answers to these questions, those who continue to find the older liberal idea, under whatever name, attractive, worth defending, and indispensable will be forced to seek it elsewhere. The progressive leftist anti-racists may prefer to say “good riddance.” In so doing, they will be declaring their form of the rational argument the only argument justly to be considered rational: The most irrational possible position, a commitment to madness in the guise of a commitment to reason. Like others before them, they will then proceed to banish their last internal defense against fanaticism and their last chance to persuade or convert, since by definition everyone not already persuaded and converted will be an “objective enemy.”
When Chait or his editors settled on “presumption of innocence” for their article that never discusses the concept, consciously or not they were pointing to the history of such turns to fanaticism and the objective enemy, but most of all they were pointing to themselves. The same mechanism that converts the argument for liberalism into an argument for its opposite, the argument for tolerance into an argument for the tolerance of evil, turns Jonathan Chait into Paul Ryan, who will already have been turned into a sign of even worse infamies than being a House Republican. The preservation of the liberal possibility is also Chait’s possibility, since the alternative for Chait would be either alignment with those he has spent his career opposing, including a President for whom, more than a decade ago by now, he notoriously declared his hatred, or alignment with those whose commitment to a politics of grievance would leave him with nothing to say, against a ready-made theory of the compensatory or objective fairness or justice of his subordination and of the indefinite deferral of a more ideally liberal mode of operation.
I do not presume that Chait sees the problem this way, in public or private. All the same, when Chait argues that Ryan’s argument, regardless of presumed actual motivation or intention, must be taken on its own terms anyway, he is requesting that his own argument also be taken on its own terms. Chait’s plea is a plea for the right to plead at all, not just or even principally on Ryan’s behalf or on behalf of reasonable principled conservatives real or imagined, but on his own behalf, and not just to be heard as a widely read columnist, but to be heard meaningfully, in particular by friends and allies. To be a meaningful right, the right to argue must also entail a right to win – even against someone rightfully and righteously speaking up for those who were victims yesterday, and in some sense are victims now, victims tomorrow, and victims forever. To deny Paul Ryan the right to make his argument, and meaningfully, eventually would require us, if at first only subtly, to deny Jonathan Chait the right to make his argument. To argue for the presumption of Republican innocence, or for the presumption of Woody Allen’s innocence, or Brendan Eich’s, or Stephen Colbert’s, or Jonathan Chait’s, or for the presumption of my innocence is also to retain the ability to find any or all of us meaningfully guilty, and it is also to retain the possible presumption of your innocence when your reasons are someday determined to be the wrong reasons, as they surely will be, and that also may be an important part of the definition of liberalism, the most familiar and therefore most easily forgotten part of it, or even the whole of it, or so one might say.
- Previous installments in this series of posts are “Which came first, politics or stupidity?,” “Objectively, the Chait Insanity Theorem Holds,” and, less relevant to the main themes but descriptive in other ways, “Chaitalanche” [↩]
- Policy judged from behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance of one’s own place in the social order. [↩]
- In this connection we should note also that, though the problem takes peculiar forms in America, it is not a mere happenstance of American history, or a bad exceptionalism. Indeed, where race as we understand it has not been a major social factor, the class capable of “liberality” has often come to treat and explicitly to describe the underclass as of another race or species. The first chapter of Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution collects numerous examples of such statements, as typical of the worldview that the American Revolution overthrew, including from the writings and public pronouncements of American revolutionaries. We even wonder whether technology or biology or biotechnology may someday realize this tendency among the Alphas or Morlocks of a perhaps not too distant future. [↩]
- Tweets of ↩] consolidated. [
- …I attempted one rough “sorting” of the left vs. liberal question with Lee M./@thinking_reed on twitter, Storified here. [↩]
- One of the most striking examples of this leftist anti-liberalism, justifying the “even,” could be found in Aaron Bady’s widely lauded (and re-tweeted) instant response to the Dylan Farrow-Woody Allen affair, which, profoundly uncomprehendingly, insisted that presumption of innocence for the accused required presumption of guilt for the accuser. [↩]