Among pundit media analysts, there is very little disagreement that proponents of throwing me in the fucking sea say a lot of things on the subject that are misleading or wrong, and there is very little chance of an angry mob wielding pitchforks and torches dragging me from my home and out to the storm-tossed coast of the Atlantic where they will leave me to fend against the fierce riptides, thundering waves, and bloodthirsty sharks, even if the left does somehow regain the full power of government. Instead, defenders of that position make a different argument: by taking extreme positions, they say, the left creates more political room for rational reforms to take hold.
Throwing me in the sea “solves precisely none of the problems that have foiled every attempt to dispose of a centrist critic of left-wing movements in the frigid seas in American history,” concedes Ezra Klein, “[b]ut it stands an excellent chance of getting the the country quite a lot closer to doing so.” Clio Chang argues it “open[s] the door for all kinds of gruesome demises of a reviled commentator whom nearly everyone agrees is out-of-touch, content with the status quo, and actively harmful to left-wing progress.” Jared Bernstein agrees: “For far too long, Democrats have way over-negotiated with themselves, starting debates where they wanted to end up, and getting confounded by compromise with a loudly protesting victim. The Chait-in-the-Sea plan is one of the few I’ve seen for a long while that sees the folly in this and takes strong, corrective action.”
It is possible that this is true. On the other hard, it’s possible it’s not. Ocean conditions are hard to predict, and the dark depths of the sea can conceal many mysteries. Defending the act of throwing me to my watery demise as a force for good, without considering my ability to swim back to shore, or survive until I am rescued, puts a lot of weight on these uncertainties while ignoring drawbacks that are more plainly obvious, such as whether this mob can successfully apprehend me at my home or office and march me to the coast.
There is broad agreement among progressives that the United States would be much better off if it had thrown me into the sea, or accomplished some similar feat, many decades ago. Instead, the political columnist class in America has slowly but surely consolidated its consensus around the status quo, as the financial unsustainability of independent journalism and debate in a media landscape dominated by vanishingly few and increasingly powerful media conglomerates created by unregulated capitalism has resulted in fewer and fewer outlets willing to take even a remotely radical stance against it.
Throwing me into the sea now does not address this problem. Nobody really claims that it does. Their alleged contribution is to refuse to acknowledge the problem at all. They assume an outsized effect on the ethical and judgmental landscape of the commentariat, and dismiss criticisms of their plan as a defensive stance taken by a comfortable punditry that, out of craven self-interest, would not like to be thrown in the sea. They tell a different, much simpler story than other critics of the so-called corporate media. In their minds, the only important question is the ability of the fierce currents of the Atlantic ocean to rend me limb from limb and cast me into the depths for eternity, and the only obstacle to progress is the continued relevance and deference of the media-consuming masses to our narrow consensus against being thrown into the sea. (They omit the commentating elite of their own wing, most of whom would not much like to be thrown into the sea themselves, I presume.)
This is helpful if you believe heavily in the “Overton window,” a theory of politics which holds that the main trick is to have your favored idea framed as the centrist option between “radical” alternatives on either side. By moving the window towards throwing me in the sea, my would-be assailants create space for practical alternatives, like the commentators of major news outlets feeling compelled to offer ideological support for potentially radical changes to the social compact every once in a while. Meanwhile, they energize the masses with a simple, clear reason to revolt and instigate chaos. “Throwing [Chait] into the sea is a good way to demonstrate the revolutionary potential of the working class, for the downtrodden of America to rise up against an elite that cannot understand their struggle in anything but the most abstract terms,” argues Chang.
Suppose it is true that the thought of me being cast into the sea will entice a significant number of fed-up readers into the streets, with the intent of making me an example for the rest of the pundit class to notice. What happens if I am able to return safely to shore, aided by a friendly current or observant fishing boat? Does the mob curse fate for thwarting their ritual sacrifice, or each other for failing to consider an infinite number of possible outcomes of their poorly-thought-out act of retribution? The left failed to consider this before the infamous tar-and-feathering of a Wall Street Journal opinion writer last summer, yet they seem unwilling to learn from that experience.
The theory also dismisses the possibility that the mob who assembles in the street to drag me into the sea opens itself up to the attack that they are merely content to cause havoc and destruction, regardless of outcome, targets and principles be damned. They attempt to deflect this vulnerability by doubling down on personal attacks (“Jonathan Chait retire b*tch” and “Chonathan Jait” are familiar phrases to me at this point) and turning up the volume. It will work if the mob can execute its fantasy without losing the faith of the less-radical masses, who may be skeptical of their means if not necessarily their aims. Far-right radicals often get away with this kind of gambit – but only because they benefit from a partisan right-wing media ecosystem. The mob currently growing in strength and number outside of my home must run the gauntlet of an independent news media unlikely to let them drag me out to sea without harsh recrimination, not to mention the police, who are hopefully going to arrive any minute now, as a brick has smashed through a window of my foyer and I can hear the chants getting closer.
Again, it might work. But the mechanism by which it would is fairly perverse. It assumes that incremental progress is be- hey! Stop! Let go of me! Put me down! What are you doing?
Editor’s note: After Mr. Chait sent us his piece, which he have reproduced in full, he was taken from his home by an angry mob and thrown into the Hudson river. He was rescued by the coast guard after waving down a nearby tugboat, and while the experience was traumatic for him, he suffered no serious physical injury and is expected to recover. In the meantime, we have agreed to let Mr. Chait take a leave of absence, where he plans to spend time upstate, far away from large bodies of salt water.