Michael Kinsley Gives Swellheads a Bad Name
If you want to see what is wrong with the modern public intellectual “pundit,” just take a look at the hack piece written by Michael Kinsley in the guise of a book review for this Sunday’s New York Times Book Reiview, “Eyes Everywhere.” It’s supposedly a review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (NY: Metropolitan Books: 2014). But Kinsley finds it more interesting to discuss the question whether Glenn Greenwald should go to jail for disclosing state secrets. That Michael Kinsley uses the occasion to call attention to himself, should not come as a surprise, it’s been his career.
Kinsley has the credentials of someone who, in days gone by, would have been thought of as a serious public intellectual. Oxford educated on a Rhodes scholarship, Harvard Law graduate, he came of age working for The New Republic, a magazine that was once considered the font of progressive thought in arts and politics in America. He would eventually become editor of that journal. And later still he was editor for a year and a half at Harper’s Magazine. He also founded the online current affairs and pop culture magazine Slate. Kinsley’s marriage to Patty Stonesifer put him in the web of connections that surrounds Bill Gates. He thus has the resume of someone that ought to be taken extremely seriously by the public and especially by publishers. The New York Times, for example, is always extremely impressed by strategic marriages.
But there is less here than meets the eye. Or perhaps there’s more. Kinsley, you see, has a streak of the barker in him. He early got the bug for being a television “pundit,” and he quickly assimilated the rules of the Washington punditry circuit. He participated in the televised carnival “Crossfire,” where he was the “liberal” antagonist to “conservative” Pat Buchanan. You can see from this that Kinsley was looking for something other than serious policy discussions of the sort that once were the mainstay of The New Republic. It’s hard to see Edmund Wilson, much less Henry Wallace demeaning themselves in such a weekly “debate.” But The New Republic under Kinsley was not what it once was. It had been gutted before he became editor by Martin Peretz, one of the original Israel-right-or-wrong hawks. It’s not that Kinsley put up much of a fight, of course. During his editorship, the magazine supported Ronald Reagan’s neocolonial adventurism and general anticommunism. The magazine became such a reliable “liberal” defender of the Gipper that even the National Review praised it. Kinsley once remarked that The New Republic was a favorite of conservative writers because they could also support one of their own positions with “Even the liberal New Republic says ….” He was the favorite “liberal” of organizations who didn’t want to offend the country’s right wing. He was predictable, uninsightful and made his mark by disagreeing with real liberals. In short he became a commodity, the quintessential Washington pundit.
So it is not surprising that his “review” of Greenwald’s book is mostly about whether Greenwald ought to have written it. In an attempt to feign intellectual gravitas for this rather shallow endeavor, he calls on analogies from Henry James and novelist Michael Frayn to diagnose what he considers the personality defects of such narcissistic reformers as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. This is so that he can put Greenwald into this category he just created of self-important reformers. You can see that the piece already wades knee deep in hackery when Kinsley has to attack other people in order to attack Greenwald’s personality. But seriously. If you intend to diagnose a will-to-power disorder in Snowden, Assange and Greenwald, is the best you can find Henry James and Michael Frayn? Isn’t that all a little too precious?
But of course Greenwald is not precious at all to Kinsley. No, Kinsley sees Greenwald viewing himself as Robespierre or Trotsky! I am not making this up. Kinsley is both red baiting Greenwald and likening him to the original Terrorist. Evidently too much exposure to television studio lights has damaged his nuance sense. He goes on to belittle the Assange-Greenwald cult for being so egotistical that they dare publish without an editor! One wonders, however, how much editorial supervision the Book Review editor exercised over this piece. Perhaps everyone at the Times is too distracted over the current brutal regime change there that no one actually is paying any attention to hack writing.
But don’t take my word, read the piece. Or if you don’t (and who could blame you?), at least read this kind of screeching generalization about the book that is both rather puerile as analysis and evidence that he is really not reviewing a book but rather simply bashing in a childish way an author that he doesn’t personally like:
Throughout “No Place to Hide,” Greenwald quotes any person or publication taking his side in any argument. If an article or editorial in The Washington Post or The New York Times (which he says “takes direction from the U.S. government about what it should and shouldn’t publish”) endorses his view on some issue, he is sure to cite it as evidence that he is right. If Margaret Sullivan, the public editor (ombudsman, or reader representative) of The Times, agrees with him on some controversy, he is in heaven. He cites at length the results of a poll showing that more people are coming around to his notion that the government’s response to terrorism after 9/11 is more dangerous than the threat it is designed to meet.
In Kinsley’s world it is a sin to quote authorities that agree with the conclusion you reach. But wait! Kinsley quotes, perhaps not an authority, but at least a fellow hack in questioning whether Greenwald should be prosecuted. And that hack is none other than fellow Washington insider David Gregory. He probably should have stuck with Henry James. Or maybe Walt Disney, because Kinsley’s legal analysis of Greenwald’s supposed criminal liability comes down to something like a wish that Kinsley’s heart makes.
Expect to hear in the next few days the phrase “Even the liberal Michael Kinsley says …” in connection with Greenwald and his book. Giving fodder to the right is evidently Kinsley’s place in the Punditocracy’s pecking order.