Last Friday on the BBC’s Newsnight program, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie clashed with Robert Emmett Tyrrell, editor-in-chief of The American Spectator, over whether Trump had made racist remarks. And the exchange demonstrates perfectly what has been so toxic in how the left and right engage in America.
And as much as HuffPo and other sites wanted to quickly declare Adichie the winner of the argument, both she and Tyrell put on a damn poor show and demonstrated that no lessons were learned over the election campaign and its toxic divisiveness. You can watch their exchange here.
Asked about Trump’s racist remarks, Tyrell insisted, “That’s not true. He hasn’t been racist.”
As the moderator Emily Maitliss and the guests all talked over each other, Adichie at last got to make her point, countering, “I’m sorry but… if you are a white man, you don’t get to define what racism is, you really don’t. You don’t get to sit there and say he hasn’t been racist when he objectively has. And it’s not about your opinion. Racism is an objective reality and Donald Trump has inhabited that reality.”
Tyrell was apparently offended by this and replied, “Do you know of the false consciousness which is a theory you are talking about is a Marxist concept? In other words… I can’t even open my mouth here because I am a white male.”
“No, of course, you can,” answered Adichie. “I am just saying to you that Donald Trump has shown us and has said things that are objectively racist.”
Here then is the impasse. Tyrell, a hardline partisan, refused to acknowledge that his own preferred candidate had made deeply offensive remarks — ones that even some establishment Republicans couldn’t stomach. And Adichie could have merely cited example after example, but chose to smugly dismiss Tyrell as a white man who wasn’t entitled to have an opinion.
Her claim that “racism is an objective reality” is ridiculous on its face. Of course, racism is quite real, it’s incredibly corrosive and harmful, but human beings with empathy measure its effects and consult the subjective experience of its victims; they note its horrible destructiveness and respond, take action. To suggest that racism can be confirmed like the speed of light or the ocean’s depth is absurd — which doesn’t imply racism isn’t real or diminish its horror, any less than we dismiss the power of love as not genuine. And who determines this “objective reality” anyway? Be careful how you answer, because the racists once relied on clap-trap social sciences to argue it was manifest reality, obvious to one and all, that black people were inferior.
It would simply be enough to point out Trump is clearly racist and discriminating by his deeds and words, as the agreed-upon dictionary definition of a racist. Because of his campaign platform of a ban on all Muslims coming into the U.S. Because of his contemptuous remarks targeting Mexican illegal immigrants, and because, if you want to go further back, his irrational insistence that the Central Park Five were guilty. High up on my list is how scumbag-slumlord Trump was found guilty by the Justice Department more than once of discriminating against black people.
Adichie could have gone down a long list. Instead, she informed Tyrell, “You don’t get to define what racism is.” You’re not allowed. You’re disqualified. Now, does Tyrell really understand racism? Highly unlikely. But where does one go in a civil debate if you tell a person you’re not entitled to a viewpoint? It’s this kind of labelling and shouting down approach that the right have complained about and use as examples to claim a moral high ground.
The Huffington Post, having learned nothing from all the Internet liberal soul-searching in the aftermath of the Trump win, wrote about the exchange with this headline: “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Shuts Down Robert Emmett Tyrrell’s Explanation Of Racism On BBC Newsnight.” The subtext to the story is a gleeful celebration of scoring a debate point, and even the language betrays the desire that you want to win the argument more than persuade others to adopt your view. Bet.com used the same term, “shut down,” while Buzzfeed’s headline was that she “clapped back” and The Root that she “schooled” her opponent. But these are more echoes around the bubble.
Similarly, Tyrell made his one legitimate point almost as an afterthought. It’s one thing for the face of The American Spectator to spend years and devote books to bashing the Clintons, but like many die-hards, he cannot see that the outrage over Trump has been mainly about moral and ethical behavior, not from a polarized political view. You don’t have to be a Democrat to despise Trump. It’s possible to recognize value in certain right-of-center concepts, to even stand up for them, without being oblivious to the almost pathological lying and sleazy tactics of his campaign. But Tyrell took a complete denial stance.
And his first go-to place was to suggest that Adichie was relying on a Marxist concept — as if its origin was relevant or mattered. Anything even coming close to a socialist or Marxist concept has been a right-wing trope for some time. But he had a point when he replied with genuine exasperation that he was being dismissed for his status rather than his arguments.
Both Tyrell and Adichie couldn’t see past each other’s assumptions about each other to have a constructive conversation. And if this is the best we can do for political discourse immediately after Trump is elected, we’re in even worse trouble for the next four years.