Sunday, June 08, 2014

What intellectuals do

I was puzzled when I read Jonathan Chait's piece last month on Michael Kinsley's review/deconstruction of Glenn Greenwald's book. Since I read the New York Times, I wondered how I missed seeing the review. Turns out that the Times posts reviews online before they appear in the hard copy of the paper. 

What was even more surprising was the reaction to what I thought was a perfectly respectable negative review by Kinsley, though I haven't read the book. But I would say that, wouldn't I? I had already made a negative post about uber-lefty Greenwald, who, regardless of the merits of his book---his GQ interview is full of arrogance and stupidity---seems to be a major drama queen, as if these serious national security issues are all about his personal melodrama. (The drama queen charge has nothing to do with his gayness, since that's a personality trait that transcends sexual orientation, gender, race, etc.)

Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor of the NY Times, scolded Kinsley for the "sneering" tone of the review.

Kinsley replied to Sullivan, and the editor of the Book Review, Pamela Paul, defended her choice to review the book. Nice, bare-knuckled back-and-forth by smart people who differ on an important issue. 

When you read the online comments, that's what it boils down to: If you agree with Kinsley, you thought the review was fair; if you disagree---and admire Greenwald and Snowden---you quibbled about Kinsley's tone and found fault with his logic.

Until I read Greenwald's book---if I read the book---I'll suspend judgment on the review, though obviously I lean in Kinsley's direction.

More than 50 years ago, when I was starting to get serious about reading and ideas, there was supposedly something called a "highbrow," a person who dealt in important cultural matters and Big Ideas not necessarily accessible to everyone. I found this to be untrue. As in this dispute, there's nothing the average person can't understand about the important issues of the day. 

One of the first such controversies I remember reading about was the free-for-all over Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. I found the whole thing bracing, especially the exchange in the Partisan Review in 1964. These folks weren't taking any prisoners! I thought: So this is what intellectuals do. How interesting! I was hooked.

Labels: , , , ,