I’ve just gotten around to reading the profile of Andrew Breitbart that appeared in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. For various reasons I don’t want to make this an overtly political space right now (I mean party politics — for some reason it’s become a political statement to say “women, non-white people, gay people, trans people, disabled people, and fat people are all people,” and that sort of “politics” will continue to appear), and I’m definitely not interested in doing a What I Hate About Andrew Breitbart post. I object to the type of punditry that amounts to a power trip, regardless of political content, and let’s leave it at that. But I was struck by his attempt to characterize House member and renowned civil rights activist John Lewis as a racist for walking in front of people who might sling epithets at him:
A few days later, Breitbart once again went after the Congressional Black Caucus. In a Big Journalism editorial headlined “2010: A RACE ODYSSEY—DISPROVING A NEGATIVE FOR CASH PRIZES, OR, HOW THE CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT JUMPED THE SHARK,” he wrote, “It’s time for the allegedly pristine character of Rep. John Lewis to put up or shut up. If you provide verifiable video evidence showing that a single racist epithet was hurled as you walked among the Tea Partiers, or you pass a simple lie detector test, I will provide a $10K check to the United Negro College Fund.” Breitbart also described the congressmen’s walk through the crowd, “in and of itself,” as an “act of racism meant to create a contrast between the Tea Party crowd and themselves.”
Let’s get this out of the way quickly, because apparently I can’t resist trying to hit the popinjay: Breitbart says that the racial slurs never occurred, because Tea Partiers have recording devices and someone would have taped them. Evidently, in Breitbart’s mind, members of a group that openly carries racist signs would be utterly shocked and bent on discrediting at all costs members of their own group who shouted racist things. Oh, but surely they know to keep it written and photographed, not vocalized: “This is 2010. Even a racist is media-savvy enough not to yell the N-word,” Breitbart says. If you read the article, in fact, you start to get a pretty good idea how a media-savvy racist behaves in 2010.
Anyway, but what I’m interested in is the part where talking about racist catcalls — or signs, or T-shirts, or, you know, policy positions — in the Tea Party means that you yourself are a racist. We see this a lot in discussions about race: If you even recognize racism, perhaps by trying to correct decades of injustice, you are the racist one! And in other discussions: If you try to carve out a space for women or refuse to be sufficiently impressed by [BONERS], truly, the sexist is YOU! It’s not just the “the real discrimination is you discriminating against me by not allowing me to discriminate against you in this one particular instance” argument, though that’s the one I see most frequently. There is also, for instance, the pervasive meme that Democrats are all secretly filthy rich and extravagant, and Republicans are all having seamy gay affairs, and Al Gore’s house wastes tons of energy. (Grains of truth, all, but let’s leave that aside.) Oh, and on a smaller scale there’s “you accuse me of trolling because I am trolling you, but you’re being so mean to me — aren’t you the real troll here?” As a person with very little patience for bullshit arguments or silencing techniques, I see that one a lot too.
Certainly it’s both dramatically and intellectually satisfying when our enemies can be conclusively shown to be hypocrites, and I would hate to deny the world moments like the truly epic last quote from this article. But this fixation on irony makes Alanis Morissette’s version seem smart. Wanting your dissenters to defeat themselves is the very definition of intellectual laziness. If the best you can muster is “ah, but aren’t you doing the exact same thing you just argued against?” then it may be time to come up with an argument of your own.
Sometimes people don’t become what they hate. Sometimes they just become what you hate. That’s okay — you can disagree with people without needing them to also disagree with themselves! Self-contradiction is not the only way for someone to be wrong — it’s just the easiest way, and the way that requires the least commitment from you as an interlocutor. (After all, you never have to say “I think you’re wrong” if you can make do with “you think you’re wrong.”) If someone has a decent argument and puts in a smidgen of effort, they should be able to muster something beyond “well you did it too.” If they can’t, they’ve either got nothing or they don’t care enough to bother.
(My fellow logic nerds, of course, know that I could have skipped this whole post and just said “the tu quoque fallacy: fuck that.” Then I would not have had the opportunity to ramble about shit and get that Alanis Morissette song stuck in your head, of course, and what fun is that? But because I love Latin names for logical fallacies I do want to slide this one in there.)