Jonathan Chait’s scurrilous attack on Quin Hillyer

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In a business that demands constant content, there is a temptation for columnists to incorporate every cultural experience into their work. No thought or idea is ever to be wasted. In this sense, you are always working; your off-duty hours are for mining content. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it feels perfunctory.

And sometimes it leads to wild assertions.

Such is the case with Jonathan Chait, who uses the movie 12 Years a Slave as a jumping off point to allege that conservative journalist Quin Hillyer’s recent “rant” against President Obama is a “cultural heir” to the “enraged white overseer” in the film.

With the movie still fresh in his mind, Chait apparently stumbled across Hillyer’s depiction of Obama — “chin jutting out, countenance haughty, voice dripping with disdain for conservatives” — and was reminded of the “racist trope” of the “uppity” black man. (Had he instead seen The Hunger Games, one can only assume Chait’s post would have instead been about child abuse or violence.)

Sometimes, of course, dog whistles are employed. But sometimes a kiss is just  a kiss — sometimes leaders really are arrogant or incompetent. And when that’s the case, what is the proper role for the journalist — to tell the truth, or to bow to the demands of political correctness?

The underlying assumption, of course, is that Barack Obama is great. Thus, his problems stem not from his failures, but rather, from a sort of latent racism — so latent that it apparently infects a man whom even Chait concedes “worked against the candidacy of David Duke.” (In a reverse of George Wallace’s famous stand in the schoolhouse door, Hillyer’s father physically blocked Duke’s path “as he tried to rush to an empty podium” at the state party convention.)

The obvious question: Conservatives were happy to accuse Bill Clinton off all sorts of things — of dodging the draft and (for some, at least) of having Vince Foster murdered.

Was race the cause of all of that?

For speaking out against this trend of stifling debate and rebuking valid criticism, I was recently accused of exerting “white privilege.” My resume is not yet as distinguished as Mr. Hillyer’s, but in my capacity as a writer, I have spoken out against racism and racially insensitive language — and have championed issues like immigration reform. But just as I disdain the sin of racism, I am deeply disturbed by those who use the race card as a cudgel or crutch (as they say, when all you have is a hammer, you think every problem is a nail.)

When a man like Hillyer finds himself in the crosshairs of the PC police, it may be clear the accusations have gone too far. To cavalierly accuse an innocent man of such a thing is to undermine the many legitimate examples that deserve to be called out.

There are so many important lessons here, but I’ll end where I began: Perhaps the greatest lesson is that not every movie we see or every book we read should immediately be turned into column fodder. Perhaps a reasonable wait period should be established?

*Disclosure: I’ve been friends with Quin for years and my wife previously consulted on his Congressional campaign.

Matt K. Lewis