Jonathan Chait’s Open Mind is Really a Blind Spot

Jonathan Chait's Open Mind is Really a Blind SpotLast week, Jonathan Chait wrote an incredibly stupid article, What Happens When Elizabeth Warren Sells Out to Powerful Interests? It was another example of Chait’s obsession with charter schools. Since Warren isn’t a big charter school booster, Chait wanted to attack her. But doing that directly would be too obvious. So he wedded it to a minor point about the medical device tax and extrapolated. You can read all about it from Ben Mathis-Lilley at Slate.

Jonathan Chait Isn’t Objective

If you asked Jonathan Chait, I’m sure he would say, “I’m just being objective; most liberals are being tribal in their skepticism of charter schools.” But is he really being objective? Well, there is one bit of evidence that contradicts that: his wife, Robin Chait, is the Director of Performance Management and Human Resources, Center City Public Charter Schools. I’m not suggesting that the two of them huddle in their home to come up with ways to deceive the public.

However, as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” But there’s a perfectly understandable reason for this. I’m sure that his wife, being in the thick of the charter school industry, hears every positive thing about charter schools and every negative thing about traditional public schools. And so she repeats them. And for some reason, after 25 years as a political writer, Jonathan Chait doesn’t know about this effect and so simply accepts the charter school industry line as “objective.”

Look at His Writing

But just look at Chait’s writing. On most subjects, he’s pretty even-handed. On education reform, he might as well be a conservative shill writing about global warming. All of his articles are cherry-picked.

Look at the Warren article above. He is right to note that Massachusetts’ charter schools are doing well on the metrics that America currently values. But he doesn’t even mention the counterargument for limiting the enrollment in charter schools: that increasing the numbers would decrease the quality. (This is a common thing in education reform: most solutions are not scalable.)

People’s Blind Spots

Anyone who thinks that one or two special carve-outs to their usual ideology shouldn’t be too certain that this is a sign of their open-mindedness. In most cases, it is simply a sign of their blind spots. That’s much more likely. And you can see it all over the place.

My favorite example is Christopher Hitchens. In his early career, he was a leftist. After 9/11 happened, he turned into at best an imperialist conservative. Yet he held on to all of his previous beliefs.

Hitchens had written The Trial of Henry Kissinger and he never stopped hating on Kissinger. Yet his views — almost from the moment the book was published — were completely in keeping with what he had earlier criticized. It wasn’t that Hitchens continued to be a Marxist (which he at times claimed) but somehow saw that the true threat to global peace were poor Muslim countries. It was just that Hitchens had developed a major blind spot — that consumed the rest of his life.

Jonathan Chait’s Blind Spots

Jonathan Chait has a few blind spots. One is that he is simply unable to see educational policy in any even-handed way. His articles always start with his conclusion that unionized teachers care nothing for children and that the benevolent managers of charter schools care about nothing but children. It’s shocking once you notice it.

He also can’t see the NCAA objectively. That seems to be just because Chait used to play football and he really likes college football now. It doesn’t mean much. And he has stopped writing about it — probably because people just laugh at him like he was the drunk conservative uncle at Thanksgiving dinner.

But his position on “political correctness” is very much in keeping with his position on charter schools. Chait is so elite that people yelling at him on Twitter is one of the biggest problems in his life. As a result, he brought back the 1990’s “political correctness run amok” article. You can read Alex Pareene’s excellent takedown of it.

The point is that just as with charter schools, Chait’s arguments are all one-sided, based on cherry-picked examples with no nuance at all. As Pareene notes: the real victims of political correctness are the same as always: marginalized people. And the people using political correctness against them are powerful people. Chait, of course, would see this in most issues.

We All Have Blind Spots

My point is not that Jonathan Chait shouldn’t have blind spots. We all do! But he should be self-aware enough to stop himself from publishing articles that he clearly doesn’t have sufficient distance from. He should stick with things he can see clearly like Friday’s Trump Didn’t Have Secret Contact With Russia — It Was Done in Plain Sight. I don’t say it is good simply because I agree with it. I say it because it isn’t actively deceptive like his articles on the NCAA, political correctness, and charter schools.

Jonathan Chait has some major blind spots and he should admit this to himself. Then he might not embarrass himself so often.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

10 thoughts on “Jonathan Chait’s Open Mind is Really a Blind Spot

  1. Chait never impressed me. (Some other Vox writers do, although my guess II’s, they’re paid less.)

    A thing I was thinking the other day was, “Animal Farm” is a masterpiece. Everybody who reads novels agrees on this — it’s not a debatable issue, like Tolstoy v. Dostoyevsky.

    Well, George Orwell was always broke. Never had a dime to his name. Tom Paine, same deal.

    What had me thinking was, “for every Animal Farm, there’s five less perfect Orwell novels. And for each imperfect novel, there’s fifty that a publisher couldn’t make profitable. For each of those novels, there’s five hundred writers who couldn’t get their novel published. For each of those, there’s five thousand people who always wanted to try writing a novel, but were intimidated by the challenge.”

    This thought exercise works until you hit Iceland, a rather dismal volcanic snowscape in which one-fifth of all people will write a novel in their lifetime. Then you ask, “but they must not have the Jesus we use to give their lives meaning.” Oh, but they absolutely do. Except theirs is spelled Bjergesffordd or some such, lives underneath a construction zone, and gets rather cranky if you don’t wake it up without permission.

    • Chait has his moments. And he is very funny at times. I especially like this on the retirement of Olympia Snowe:

      When George W Bush proposed a huge, regressive tax cut in 2001, Snowe, sitting at the heart of a decisive block of centrists, used her leverage to support the passage of a modestly smaller and less regressive version. When Barack Obama proposed a large fiscal stimulus in 2009, Snowe (citing fears of deficits that she had helped create) decided to shave a nice round $100 billion off his figure and call it a day. If a Gingrich administration proposed spending a trillion dollars to erect a 100-foot-tall solid-gold Winston Churchill statue on Mars, Snowe would no doubt decide, after careful deliberation, that the wise course was to trim the height down to 90 feet and perhaps use a cheaper bronze alloy in the base.

      And today he is complaining about conservative Democrats in the House screwing up by saying that Trump should just be given his wall. One thing I will definitely give Chait is that he understands political strategy and tactics. But on the whole, he is hard to take. And he has a very spotty past.

      I haven’t read Animal Farm since I was in high school. I’ve never thought much of it because it seemed too easy to write. But I guess I should read it again. I’ve evolved a lot on Nineteen Eighty-Four. I used to think it was brilliant. But I’ve come to see it as awkward — both in content and style. But I see why that was. Orwell was dying while writing it. It’s a miracle he managed to finish it at all. But time has ultimately shown that the systems of control are far more subtle. Neil Postman put it well:

      What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.

      What ultimately bothers me is that in a capitalist system, the incentive is to produce crap. Writers have to constantly produce more stuff or they won’t be able to pay the rent. So instead of writing a book when you have something worth saying, you write a book every year. And you write books when all you really have to say could be written in a 5,000-word article. This is because writing is simply a commodity. And one of the results of this is that the same people get their books published why interesting minds are simply ignored. The current system has worked fine for me. But it doesn’t work fine overall.

      • That’s a great Postman quote. If you read Huxley & Orwell together, you can see what each one got right (and getting any prophecy right is quite a trick!) Orwell understood that we’d lose our minds to screens. Huxley understood we’d happily volunteer to!

        • That sums it up really well. If you haven’t read Amusing Ourselves to Death you really should. It was one of the most important books I ever read. It allowed me to see society in a totally new way.

  2. Charter schools are perhaps the perfect conservative project. The stated goal is to help children. But that is not the actual goal. The actual goal is to divert public funding into private profit. And religious zealots who have no idea what is really going on are the foot soldiers for the project.

    • It’s an impressive thing about the recent LA teacher strike victory; they were adamant about slowing the spread of charter schools. And they won.

      Cory Booker was a big fan of charter schools in New Jersey. I’ll tolerate Democratic centrists on some issues; not that one.

      • Booker has made a left-turn recently. But I still have a big problem with his statement in 2012 that we should stop being mean to the billionaires. So I don’t trust him. I suspect he thinks that at the bottom of his soul. And he will govern that way. I’ll still vote for him if it comes to it. But I’ll be really disappointed.

        • Sure. General, you gotta vote for the D-nominee. (Or I do; California’s pretty safe, you can write in Bugs Bunny if you want.)

          Primary, I’m voting my favorite. Too early to tell, there’s a few I like, and more might run.

          • I feel that I still have to vote for the pragmatic choice in the general. In 2012, I voted for Obama. And in 2016, we saw why you can’t assume that others will handle it. I suspect that a lot of people in Michigan didn’t vote because they thought HRC had the election all sewed up.

    • I think it is also about getting rid of teachers unions. But you are right. It is just a rebranding of vouchers.

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