On Monday, Chris Hayes defended his "interview" with Nevada State Assemblywoman Michele Fiore last week by saying that it's necessary to "talk to the other side" and that his show isn't an echo chamber.
"But you know what? This is a big country with a lot of political conflict in it, in case you have not noticed, and politics is about having those arguments. Not just talking to yourself, not just hearing what you want to hear, but actually learning by listening to what the other side is saying. Not that they're necessarily right or instantly persuaded or allowed to go unchallenged, but it is important to understand how they are thinking on the issue, how they see the world."
"It is not a wrestling match or a high school debate you need to win in the moment. And the point is not to bring someone on and thoroughly humiliate them on national television, no. The point is this: These folks, like Assemblywoman Fiore, are people we share this country with. I want to hear from them. And I think I have a better understanding of American politics because of it. So we're going to keep doing that. And you, please, keep sending us your feedback."
It's a pretty noble argument. But if Chris Hayes understood American politics better because of these steamrolling episodes, he'd understand that his nobility is being used against him in order to score political points, and that the people he brings on the show in this capacity are not interested in the goddamn least in sharing the country with the rest of us but "taking it back" by any means necessary. His nobility, while admirable, is completely one-sided.
What Hayes has actually constructed here is really a "both sides do it" and "both sides have equally valid viewpoints worth listening to" argument. There are cases where this is true, but Friday night wasn't one of them, not by a long shot. This was a person who wanted to score cheap points at Chris Hayes's expense, and she did. Hayes's idealism is great in an ideal world, but against Tea Party Republicans who practice dangerous eliminationist tactics, it's folly.
The Michele Fiore defense was bad enough, but then today Chris Hayes compounded his bad behavior with a piece in the Nation that compares the fight to abolish slavery to climate change. Granted, he acknowledges that this is a bad idea about twelve paragraphs in:
It is almost always foolish to compare a modern political issue to slavery, because there’s nothing in American history that is slavery’s proper analogue. So before anyone misunderstands my point, let me be clear and state the obvious: there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices. Humans are humans; molecules are molecules. The comparison I’m making is a comparison between the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel.
But then two paragraphs later goes right back to demonstrating exactly why this is a bad idea.
The connection between slavery and fossil fuels, however, is more than metaphorical. Before the widespread use of fossil fuels, slaves were one of the main sources of energy (if not the main source) for societies stretching back millennia. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, nearly all energy to power societies flowed from the natural ecological cascade of sun and food: the farmhands in the fields, the animals under saddle, the burning of wood or grinding of a mill. A life of ceaseless exertion.
What he says is true, but it becomes dry, bloodless statistics rather than the psychological, physical, social, and mental horror that was slavery. Even this seemingly innocuous piece glosses over the fact that it's the descendent of those slaves who have the fewest resources to address climate change today.
Later on in the piece Hayes tries again to save himself:
Let me pause here once again to be clear about what the point of this extended historical comparison is and is not. Comparisons to slavery are generally considered rhetorically out of bounds, and for good reason. We are walking on treacherous terrain. The point here is not to associate modern fossil fuel companies with the moral bankruptcy of the slaveholders of yore, or the politicians who defended slavery with those who defend fossil fuels today.
In fact, the parallel I want to highlight is between the opponents of slavery and the opponents of fossil fuels. Because the abolitionists were ultimately successful, it’s all too easy to lose sight of just how radical their demand was at the time: that some of the wealthiest people in the country would have to give up their wealth. That liquidation of private wealth is the only precedent for what today’s climate justice movement is rightly demanding: that trillions of dollars of fossil fuel stay in the ground. It is an audacious demand, and those making it should be clear-eyed about just what they’re asking. They should also recognize that, like the abolitionists of yore, their task may be as much instigation and disruption as it is persuasion. There is no way around conflict with this much money on the line, no available solution that makes everyone happy. No use trying to persuade people otherwise.
The issue is not that Hayes is wrong, but that trying to separate out the economic ramifications of slavery from the moral ones is impossible. Hayes tries to do it in order to avoid the treacherous ground he mentions, but instead ends up stomping all over it.
In both the Fiore defense and his economics of slavery piece, Hayes's well-meaning intentions end up blowing up in his face. That seems to happen to him an awful, awful lot. Maybe there's a reason for that?
In other words, when I make arguments about useful idiocy, Chris Hayes is Exhibit A.