Michael Kinsley's review of Glenn Greenwald's book is the worst thing The NYT Book Review has ever run

By Ted Rall , written on May 23, 2014

From The News Desk

Michael Kinsley's review of the new Glenn Greenwald book is the worst thing The New York Times Book Review has ever run.

This makes it worth reading.

Magisterial in its intellectual dishonesty, so breathtakingly establishmentarian one wonders how this got past his own copy of Microsoft Word much less an editor, and perhaps the most egregious example of a hatchet job masquerading as a book review in recorded history, "Eyes Everywhere" inadvertently leaves the reader with an "anyone who elicits this much contempt can't be all bad" vibe that will likely lead curious book buyers to further line Greenwald's pockets.

Like any classic hit piece, Kinsley's bullshit starts out reeking right out of the gate:

“My position was straightforward,” Glenn Greenwald writes. “By ordering illegal eavesdropping, the president had committed crimes and should be held accountable for them.” You break the law, you pay the price: It’s that simple.

But it’s not that simple, as Greenwald must know. There are laws against government eavesdropping on American citizens, and there are laws against leaking official government documents. You can’t just choose the laws you like and ignore the ones you don’t like. Or perhaps you can, but you can’t then claim that it’s all very straightforward. What Kinsley is missing — here I believe he isn't mendacious, simply stupid — is that some laws are more important than others.

It's called the Greater Good. It's why cop cars break the speed limit when responding to robberies. It's why Rosa Parks, arrested for violating the long-standing rules and customs of the Montgomery transit system, is nevertheless a hero. She chose the laws she liked and ignored the ones she didn't. And she was right.

Edward Snowden's violation of his employer's confidentiality agreement, Greenwald would say, and I and many other Americans would agree, pales in importance next to President Obama's conscious decisions to break his campaign pledges to rein in Bush's post-9/11 surveillance state, violate his oath to preserve and protect the Constitution, and preside over a radical expansion of the NSA's ignoring of its charter, which prohibits it from targeting Americans in the United States — leading to billions of illegal incursions into Americans' private communications every day.

To Kinsley's credit, he reveals from the outset that his problems with Greenwald begin (and perhaps end) with his personality. "Maybe he's charming and generous in real life," he writes, "…Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss."

Fine, but can we have a book review now, please? I hear Stephen King is a sweet fellow, funny too, but that's not why people like his work. Cicero, on the other hand, was a bit of a dick. And?

Sorry, no book review yet. First we must detour into Whistleblowers-are-Weird-istan. "There are narcissists like Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks," Kinsley explains. "These are self-canonized men who feel that, as saints, they are entitled to ignore the rules that constrain ordinary mortals." Unlike Kinsley, who has no ego. Could it be that, pompous or not, Assange believes that the rules broken by people like Chelsea Manning exist more to protect the powerful government officials and corporate lobbyists who write them, than to make sure that you and I don't suffer a second 9/11? Assange, it seems clear, is interested in the big picture.

Kinsley? He's a micron man. Ideas elude him, so he obsesses over personalities — his readings of which are suspect. Edward Snowden, he states minus elaboration, has "the conspiratorial worldview of a precocious teenager." After all, it's not like Snowden has any reason to believe that the government is watching him, and everyone else, all the time, in every way. (The catchphrase "collect it all" appears throughout NSA PowerPoints and other documents revealed by Snowden.) Snowden, he continues, "appears to yearn for martyrdom." In this review, Kinsley seems determined to accommodate.

Now can we find out whether the book is worth reading?

Apparently not. First we must learn that Greenwald is "not a reformer but a ruthless revolutionary — Robespierre, or Trotsky." If only! To the contrary, the brief against Greenwald is his leaden, lawyerly prose. But then, that has long been the key to his effectiveness.

Here, let me help with the smears:

"Glenn Greenwald, the Pol Pot of Salon"?

"Guardian Ghenghis"?

Halfway in, we finally get down to the dish. Alas, the broth is watery.

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.
If we are all entitled to our opinions but not our own facts, there are nevertheless opinions that reveal that a brain doesn't work properly.

Yes, Greenwald "says" the New York Times asks the government to sign off before they publish. Greenwald probably also "says" the sun rises in the east. Both are statements of fact. Note: deminishment by attribution.

One would expect a man who worked in the media as long as Kinsley to know that the Times' public editor is the Grey Lady's head of internal affairs, paid by the insiders to rep the readers from outside, to channel the critics. It is thus not only entirely possible, but indeed a frequent occurrence, to find an ombudsman at odds with her own paper, its policies and politics. Sullivan finding common ground with Greenwald in no way implies the broad institutional concurrence Kinsley posits. He knows that. More weirdly, the Times knows that. So why is this garbage here?

Greenwald doesn’t seem to realize that every piece of evidence he musters demonstrating that people agree with him undermines his own argument that “the authorities” brook no dissent. No one is stopping people from criticizing the government or supporting Greenwald in any way. Nobody is preventing the nation’s leading newspaper from publishing a regular column in its own pages dissenting from company or government orthodoxy. If a majority of citizens now agree with Greenwald that dissent is being crushed in this country, and will say so openly to a stranger who rings their doorbell or their phone and says she’s a pollster, how can anyone say that dissent is being crushed? What kind of poor excuse for an authoritarian society are we building in which a Glenn Greenwald, proud enemy of conformity and government oppression, can freely promote this book in all media and sell thousands of copies at airport bookstores surrounded by Homeland Security officers?
Here I would like to invite members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose encampments were rousted by police departments in a simultaneous series of violent attacks coordinated by the federal Department of Homeland Security that effectively crushed the biggest mass movement in the U.S. since the 1960s, to drop a line to Mr. Kinsley. Perhaps you can explain to him why someone might argue that "the authorities" aren't that into dissent.

What Kinsley seems to be denying exists — and no one is contradicting him — is a totalitarian American state, one that brooks no dissent. The United States in 2014 is closer to a nascent authoritarian state (he uses the word but misuses its meaning). Authoritarian states like Egypt and Pakistan allow newspaper columnists to oppose government policy. They tolerate opposition parties. There are often vigorous debates. People can protest. They can speak more or less openly. They can sell books.

In an authoritarian state, what cannot be tolerated is opposition to the existence of the state itself or to the people or class structure in control of that regime. An authoritarian state relies on an oppressive police apparatus and surveillance technology to monitor and rein in anyone who might try to change the basic system itself.

A Glenn "Robespierre" Greenwald who called for the overthrow of the U.S. government would not be allowed to sell lots of books at airport Hudson Newses.

Finally, this:

The trouble is this: Greenwald says that Snowden told him to “use your journalistic judgment to only publish those documents that the public should see and that can be revealed without harm to any innocent people.” Once again, this testimony proves the opposite of what Greenwald and Snowden seem to think. Snowden may be willing to trust Greenwald to make this judgment correctly — but are you? And even if you do trust Greenwald’s judgment, which on the evidence might be unwise, how can we be sure the next leaker will be so scrupulous?

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald. This is an amazing bit of writing to read by a self-described journalist.

"In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government." One would expect the former editor of The New Republic to know that the U.S. has never been, nor purported to be, a democracy. But anyway… wow.

Who should we trust more, Glenn Greenwald or the U.S. government?

Sourpuss or no, Glenn Greenwald has never said there were WMDs in another country so he could invade it. He doesn't extraordinarily rendition, or torture, or maintain concentration camps. He doesn't command aerial armadas of killer robot planes to blow up innocent people without so much as a court warrant. Greenwald doesn't listen to my phone calls, read my email or intercept my new computer in transit in order to install malware.

If I were Michael Kinsley, I wouldn't trust myself.