The Fine Art of Missing the Point

The raison d’etre of the truly reactionary mind is the performance of missing the point. Rhetoric for the rightist provocateur is normally an exercise in obfuscation, disingenuousness, and shadow boxing – perhaps now more than ever. I don’t mean to suggest that the right doesn’t believe what it says – if only that were true. Rather, that so much of conservative outrage over this or that example of “political correctness” and feigned anxiety over the supposed risk to their own free-speech rights should never be taken seriously, because fundamentally it’s all an act of political theater – of kabuki.

What concerns me is how much of that spirit has infected the rest of the body politic. Pointing out the hypocrisy of the right is a favorite parlor game of some liberals, at its worst it demonstrates an undue faith in the power of reason to set people straight, at its best it’s a form of inter-group solidarity that exemplifies the power of what essayist Rebecca Solnit says can be too often dismissed as “preaching to the choir.”

So don’t take my criticism of the right’s hypocrisy or its disingenuousness as some sort of misguided panacea so much as it is an anthropological examination of the ways in which the new reactionaries make a ritual out of missing the point, and of pretending they don’t mean what they say they mean (and then howling in indignation when they’re called out on it). And more worryingly, how their fallacies and deficiencies of thought, in forcing us to react to them, sully our own thinking on these issues.

Often we take it as a given that American mainstream discourse, even if rancorous, was permeated with both rationality and good faith. That there was perhaps some kind of “respectable” conservative who dominated the think tanks of Georgetown or the salons of the Upper East Side is a historical reality, that their influence now consists of a sad pantomime of resistance (however genuine those feelings may be) for Democratic moderates who cling to their DVD box sets of The West Wing while lulled to sleep with dangerous fantasies of bipartisanship is also a historical reality.

Right now the political import in the Republican Party of an exiled David Frum or a Bill Kristol is close to nil, they serve rather as the court-conservatives for worried liberals who pine for the days when the scariest right-wingers spoke in non-rhotic Long Island lockjaw and were cultured enough to know that you pair white with fish and red with meat. That sort of Burkean conservative, the David Brooks, the Andrew Sullivans, the George F. Wills, write only for moderate liberals, and the current GOP which has been entirely zombified by conspiracy theorists hold absolutely no truck in them.

What’s even more frustrating is how the tyranny of the hot take (of which I’ll fully cop to writing one right now) has made reaction and paroxysm the definitional currency of the moment for everyone.

Certainly in what is fundamentally a center-left nation like the United States (and I mean that in both an economic and social sense) it takes a combination of subterfuge, gerrymandering, and anti-democratic chicanery to find ourselves administered by one of the farthest right governments in recent history. Rightist partisans have no choice but to perform the continual missing of the point, for it confounds the “good liberals” who feel that the opposition is acting in some sort of good faith and it sufficiently masks the extremity of their position for otherwise non-political people.

What we have now are simply professional trolls, anal polyps like Kevin Williamson who advocates the mass execution of women in a bloodbath that would make the early modern witch hunts look positively liberal, and whose defenders shriek about his “silencing” in being terminated from a job he never should have been offered in the first place. Central to defenses of someone like Williamson is missing the point, pretending that it was his anti-choice opinions which people took issue with and not his unimaginably misogynistic, if not genocidal, positions. Say what you will about the noxious new right, at least they’re honest about how awful they are – it’s less exhausting.

A masterclass in the performance of missing the point can be seen in the right-wing Twitter reaction to Dan Piepenbring’s April 13th New Yorker article “Chick-fil-A’s Creepy Infiltration of New York City.” Piepenbring writes about the arrival of the popular southern fried chicken chain to New York City, a franchise equally known for its extreme homophobic politics as it is for putting a pickle on its sandwiches (or something, I don’t know).

The author succinctly and accurately gives an account of Chick-fil-A’s controversial politics, including its underwriting of anti-gay legislation (though he doesn’t mention the company’s support for genocidal policies in the nation of Uganda), and he quotes its late C.E.O. Dan Cathy as saying that as regards marriage equality “We’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation…when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.”

Chick fil-A’s politics are clearly not neutral or benign, and Piepenbring makes the point that despite disavowals of the more incendiary sentiments associated with the chain in the past, they quietly continue to donate to anti-gay causes. Here, on Manhattan’s Fulton Street, in the one of the most ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse cities on Earth, but a short 2.3 miles from the Stonewall Inn, and a company that has become virtually synonymous in the American culture wars with a particularly noxious strain of evangelical chauvinism, and Piepenbring concludes that “the brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism.”

There are many reactions one could have to Piepenbring’s analysis, one could understand it as a hyperbolic over-reaction or silly liberal grandstanding and virtue signaling in the smuggest of ways. I don’t know, I’ve never been to Chick-fil-A on Fulton Street or anywhere else. If Piepenbring says that it felt like an infiltration to him, I’ve no reason to doubt him – after all, he never claimed that it objectively was such. What has been worrying, if predictable, is how positively uncharitable readings of the essay have been even among progressives, automatically ascribing to Piepenbring the most malicious of intents, and performing this ascribing by over-reading the essay itself and ignoring the actual words on the page.

Perhaps it’s the New Critic in me, but denunciations of Piepenbring which range from his supposed anti-Christianity to arguing that his review exhibits a dog-whistle racism (a silly and untenable claim as regards this particular article, and one that is problematic in its own right) are so rarely grounded in any rigorous or exact reading of his piece that it makes me want to eat a beer bottle. After all, in the offending sentence Piepenbring unequivocally says that the arrival of Chick-fil-A “feels” like an infiltration, and that single word my friends is that upon which the whole meaning of the piece hinges. One doesn’t have to be William Empson or Cleanth Brooks to understand that in that single verb Piepenbring’s meaning should be clear. His is not a universal argument nor a literal one, but rather an accounting of his own reaction to the chain, and God forbid he shouldn’t openly embrace the arrival of Chick-fil-A to New York. And for the reasons that he outlines, I can understand why he might very well feel like the restaurant represents an insidious creep of red state values into the city (I could see feeling something similar).

What’s been even more dispiriting is the “Whataboutism” of the anti-corporate left who should know better, some of whom asked why Piepenbring doesn’t similarly condemn Starbucks or Apple, or what have you. Well of course. To condemn Chick-fil-A is not necessarily to exonerate corporate malfeasance from others, but I don’t know what Pieperbring’s politics or positions are on those others, because that’s not what this article was about.

The right, of course, reacted predictably. There was a clucking of tongues and a rending of garments. “How positively foolish!” says the reactionary commentariat at 140 figures a tweet. “This New Yorker writer must know no Christians, he must wallow in his coastal-liberal-elite-bubble, having never encountered a God-fearing man!” I’m not exaggerating – The Federalist called the short restaurant review a “hate piece” and The Washington Examiner said that Piepenbring was “bigoted and intolerant.” Michele Malkin (remember her?!) at the “respectable” National Review places Piepenbring in her paranoid geneology of a “nationwide witch hunt against Chick-fil-A.” Malkin, who in mocking tones spends a few hundred words excoriating Piepenbring for what she sees as the New Yorker writer’s histrionics answers with far crazier examples of her own.

For sheer gall in the Punch and Judy show of missing the goddamn fucking point, it would have to be the preponderance of tweets which asked if the New Yorker was offended by the presence of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown. As if the point of Piepenbring’s article was that he was offended by Christianity. His issue is clearly (which, I should say, was rather gently stated) with the corporation’s reprehensible politics that happen to not square with the left-leaning denizens of New York. In a civil society this should go without saying, but the moment your religious opinions affect your politics, whether you’re evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim, than your religious opinions are no longer beyond criticism or reproach.

Chick-fil-A is certainly free to sell chicken and to donate to anti-gay causes, but to frame the most tepid criticism of the chain as anti-Christian hate speech is an almost dizzying act of bad faith. If anything, Piepenbring is being honest about the current cold civil war we find ourselves in, something that the right occasionally is honest about as well (when it suits their purposes), while also passing off criticism against them as “anti-Christian hate speech” when they choose to be purposefully thick. Malkin and her ilk know damn well that the New Yorker’s criticism of Chick-fil-A was always political, but it’s more convenient to their narrative to pretend that the author has never met a Christian.

Of course everyone is free to criticize Piepenbring as much as they want, and it’s pertinent for me to point that out because now is the appropriate point in this godforsaken genre to include the pro forma, exhausting explanation of what free speech is. But let’s also be clear that for those offended by tone or phrasing in the original review that they’re often reacting not to the article itself, but rather a cartoon version, and this goes double for those who should know better, contributing to the digital pile-on for a piece that even if impolitically phrased still has something trenchant to say about regional identity, corporate politics, and America’s cultural divisions.

And as for those on Twitter asking if Piepenbring would be shocked by St. Patrick’s, while no one has ever gotten rich off of betting on the intelligence of internet commenters, one imagines that some of them at least have to know how patently bullshit their joke is. On the one hand we have a stalwart symbol of New York’s immigrant Catholic past, on the other we have a distinctly southern, distinctly evangelical, distinctly right-wing restaurant chain that donates their profits to reactionary causes. It’s as if the late, great Carnegie Deli suddenly opened up a franchise in rural Arkansas and donated their proceeds to Planned Parenthood.

A conservative Catholic priest named Fr. Dwight Longenecker wrote on his blog an admittedly not unfunny piece titled “Starbucks’ Creepy Infiltration of South Carolina” which would be much funnier if it wasn’t for the fact that every Christmas a certain segment of conservatives write unironic pieces with that same argument. A right-winger can only claim that they don’t engage in the exact same sort of rhetoric as Piepenbring if they purposefully ignore the fact that every Advent we face a deluge of articles claiming that this or that “liberal” corporation is waging a war on Christmas. Which is fine, but in a country where one half hates the other half the perennial criticism of “hypocrisy” seems anemic at best, completely disingenuous at worst – better just to admit the hate outright.

Mocking critics of the piece just got triggered that Piepenbring had the temerity to call out the chicken carpetbaggers for what they are, and it was the too-clever-by-half “Christian” commenters who compared a beautiful, massive, neo-gothic cathedral to a tacky fast-food restaurant. But who can expect them to ever hear choirs of angels above their own obnoxious clucking?

Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, at his author website, and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

Photograph "A Different Chicken", by Stephen Woods.

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