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Comments: Week of April 21, 2014

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1. “Race, always the deepest and most volatile fault line in American history, has now become the primal grievance in our politics, the source of a narrative of persecution each side uses to make sense of the world,” Jonathan Chait wrote in a cover story on the uses of racial politics in the Obama years (The Color of His Presidency,” April 7–20). “Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.” Conservatives, unused to having their sense of racial paranoia taken seriously by a liberal writer, were mostly kind. “It is an at-times brave and insightful, if not uniformly persuasive, essay,” wrote Jonah Goldberg at National Review Online. “It’s a fair point that conservatives should be more conspicuously concerned about racism.” On his blog, CK MacLeod wondered if conservatives should abandon dog-whistle rhetoric entirely. “It is, after all, quite possible to discuss a proposal on taxes without reference to what may motivate all or most of those strongly, or emotionally or irrationally or prejudicially, in favor of it. It is even, for that matter, entirely ­possible to discuss what we now sometimes call a ‘culture of poverty’ without reference to race.” But on the left, readers were furious at Chait’s equanimity, many of them particularly put off by his suggestion that Republicans were innocent of racialized rhetoric. “It doesn’t matter that an individual Republican may not have ‘a racist bone’ in his or her body,” wrote Joan Walsh at Salon. “If they reliably and consistently ally with others who do, and if the result of that alliance is to persistently disadvantage one group of Americans out of proportion to the rest, then they have to answer for their party’s racism. If that hurts Jonah Goldberg’s feelings, sorry, but I’m not losing sleep over it.” Another major line of critique was that Chait had written about the political uses of racial rhetoric without much reporting on the experience of race in the Obama years. “It’s a story that treats race as an intellectual exercise—a low-stakes cocktail party argument between white liberals and white conservatives. It has nothing to do with race as experienced in the ‘day-to-day’ lives of ordinary people,” wrote Jamelle Bouie at Slate. “If attitudes toward blacks are determinative of attitudes toward government, and vice versa, then that poses a tremendous challenge to ameliorating racial inequality and injustice. Still, if you’re trying to tell the story of race in the Obama years, Chait’s version strikes me as utterly ancillary.” And at The New Republic, Brian Beutler sounded the same note: “If you allow conservatives to omit the racial component, you’re not being ­polite—you’re just participating in a false debate. The left-right race argument can become less cacophonous than it is. But not through a process of phased, mutual disarmament. Maybe that comes second. Conservative intellectuals need to first cast aside their racial blinders.” And then there were those liberals of the center-left who completely loved the essay. On Twitter, Jason Whitlock called it “brilliant.” And Isaac Chotiner agreed: “Jonathan Chait’s superb cover story in New York magazine on race in the Obama era has been attacked for a number of silly reasons, my favorite being that Chait should have written a different piece entirely. Chait’s central thesis is powerfully argued. (It seems clear to me that Chait does not mean to imply that racism and false accusations of racism are equally large problems in American life),” he wrote, also at The New Republic. “The question then arises of how things will or won’t change when Obama leaves office in a couple of years,” he continued. “But there is a corollary: namely, that the racial wars will morph into gender wars. … You can count on MSNBC, for example, to turn nearly every attack on [Hillary] Clinton into an attack on Republicans for hating women. (I expect Chris Matthews, who Chait mentions and who once disdained Clinton, to clean up his act and fall into partisan line.)”

2. Maureen O’Connor’s “Sex Lives” column on the ascendancy of the rear end in modern sexual interactions (Playtime,” April 7–20) shocked our letter-writing readers. “Disgusting. I don’t think I ever read anything filthier in a mainstream periodical,” wrote Berl Falbaum. “I had to check the cover that I wasn’t ­reading Hustler.” “Hits a really disgusting level of journalism usually found in porn lit. Man, it’s going to take awhile to strike those images from my brain,” wrote Charlie Maier. But readers on the Cut took a wildly different view of the column. “I wonder what it says about me that this is the first article I read all the way through, from top to bottom. Kudos to the writer, good piece. Very much enjoyed the slight straying into the oxymora of male dominance and patriarchy, an intriguing subject in the sexual context,” lauded one reader. “I’m not too into butt-stuff, but if people are diligent about washing their asses, what is the issue?” asked another. “I remember a woman waking me up this way 15 years ago,” shared a reader. “I married her. Smartest thing I ever did.

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