I just read an article by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine that was so silly and self-indulgent I wasn’t going to comment on it. What’s the point of comparing Greenwald to Ralph Nader (or to anyone else, really)? What’s the point of discussing Greenwald at all, compared to the importance of his reporting? Can you really try to castigate Greenwald for arguing that in various ways Obama is worse than Bush, when so many Constitutional law experts are arguing that indeed, Obama is worse than Nixon? Is Chait ignorant of the mountain of evidence behind this argument, or of the other people making it? Why does he refer to but fail to address the actual evidence in the supporting piece he links to, instead treating the argument itself as ipso facto evidence of sanctimony? What does it mean that liberals might break with Greenwald because he believes “even if Obama is the lesser of two evils, he’s the more effective of two evils” (oh no, the cool kids will stop inviting him to play dates… and is this more a reflection on Greenwald, or on liberals)? And most glaring of all, did Chait really complain that “For Greenwald… the evils of liberals loom far larger than the evils of conservatives,” when he’s talking about a guy who’s written no fewer than three books (and God knows how many blog posts) on the failings of conservatives — with titles like How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President [Bush] Run Amok; and A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency; and Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics?
My initial reaction was just to shake my head at how someone could put his name on something so sloppily argued, and to briefly wonder why anyone would publish it. But then, as sometimes happens when I’ve rolled my eyes and am about to click on a (hopefully) better link, something struck me that I thought was worth calling out.
That something is a remarkable case of psychological projection – the ”defense mechanism in which a person unconsciously rejects his or her own unacceptable attributes by ascribing them to objects or persons in the outside world.” In an odd cri de coeur, Chait declares:
I won’t pretend to be neutral here — I’ve tangled with Greenwald numerous times. So, for instance, he called me a “McCain worshiper,” and it is true that I have written some highly favorable things about John McCain. I’ve also written some highly critical things. I pointed out to Greenwald that, when I have called McCain, among other things, a “dangerous sociopath,” it would at least complicate the picture in such a way as to preclude me from being called a “worshiper.” But no, Greenwald dug in deeper, assembling all the evidence he could muster for his side and ignoring all the evidence pointing in the opposite direction.
I’m glad Chait thought to include that paragraph. If he hadn’t, I would have wondered what had caused him to write such a bizarre and illogical piece. Now I get it — at some point, Greenwald hurt his feelings. But what most fascinates me about the paragraph in question is that Chait included it in the very piece in which he accused Greenwald of focusing more on the evils of liberals than of conservatives — without even pausing to explain, or even acknowledge, all those books (and posts) of Greenwald’s that would seem pretty clearly not just to mitigate the claim, but to outright belie it.
This is pretty weird behavior. How could it happen? I don’t know Chait, but I doubt he could be that unintelligent. Or that uninformed. So I think what happened instead is that he’s so blinded by personal animus he wasn’t able to see the evidence completely neutering what he was trying to argue. Even more interesting is that the blindness is profound enough to prevent him from seeing that he is doing the very same thing — cherry-picking to make an argument — that he accuses Greenwald of doing to him, and that he apparently found so hurtful when it happened.
I want to add in Chait’s defense that in my experience, one of the animating themes of all Greenwald’s writing is a loathing of hypocrisy. So it stands to reason that Greenwald might find a little extra ire for “liberals” who opposed Bush’s authoritarian programs but are now excusing and justifying the same or worse as perpetrated by Obama. As in, when Dick Cheney argues that unaccountable surveillance is good, at least he’s being consistent. When liberals who were against such things before make Cheneyesque arguments now that Obama is in the White House, something else seems to be going on, and deeply held principle isn’t it. So yes, Greenwald does have a tendency to point out — correctly and usefully — liberal hypocrisy on these issues. But is this really what Chait means with his notion that “the evils of liberals loom far larger” for Greenwald? Pointing out glaring hypocrisy seems a pretty slim reed on which to hang such a charge (and again, look at the title of one of those books — Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics! Greenwald seems even handed even with his charges of hypocrisy).
That’s about as charitable an explanation as I can come up with for the shortcomings in Chait’s article. Maybe he can offer something better.
The reason the projection, and the sloppiness and cherry-picking to which the projection blinds Chait, is significant is because of what’s behind it. Look, arguments on the Internet can get pretty rough sometimes, and people’s feelings can get hurt. But it’s important for everyone, and especially for journalists, to try to set those feelings aside and be as dispassionate and principled as possible. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone reasonably dispassionate about Greenwald would be more focused on him than on the massive, illegal NSA spying operation he’s recently been breaking so much news on. How could a journalist worth a damn care more about the former than about the latter? Only if he were unhealthily personally engaged, I would imagine. Chait seems to sense as much, opening his article by saying, “The debate over domestic surveillance is not a debate about what we think about Glenn Greenwald. But…” Yes, but! Because then Chait goes on to write an entire article that consists of nothing but his feelings about Greenwald. If only that tiny voice of reason he was hearing could have spoken up a little louder. Or if Chait’s ears weren’t too stopped up to hear it.
I have to add, I loved that “we,” too. Back in the day in Japan, the Emperor, after a particularly fulfilling meal, would lean back and proclaim, “Yo wa manzoku ja” – literally, “The world is satisfied.” Because, if the Emperor is contented, that means all must be well throughout the entire world. I’m always reminded of this species of royal neurosis when I encounter the Jonathan Chaits of the world, losing sight of where their preferences and feelings end and those of the rest of the world begin.
If Chait were the only one whose priorities and judgment were being distorted by personal antipathy for Greenwald, it would hardly be worth noting. But I’ve now seen this kind of thing from (in no particular order of importance) David Gregory, Joy Reid, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Edward Epstein, Alan “Torture Warrants” Dershowitz, and many others. Irrelevant questions; questions about things that have already been repeatedly asked and answered and are easily findable with a rudimentary Google search; a focus on bullshit and gossip instead of a discussion about how the government has been illegally spying on the American people. It’s enough to make me wonder whether there might be a Greenwald Derangement Syndrome at work. If so, it seems pretty virulent: it causes journalists (and others) to experience swollen egos and shrunken reason; to place the personal above the professional and the petty above the profound; and most insidiously of all, to become blind to the very behaviors that should alert them they’ve taken ill. It’s a little late for GDS to make it into the new DSM V, but maybe it’ll get an entry in Wikipedia. Certainly there are enough people who are showing symptoms.
What a shame. Journalists like Chait who let their feelings get the better of them aren’t just embarrassing themselves. They’re also doing a disservice to their readers. It would be great if they could take a deep breath, recite a brief mantra of, “It doesn’t matter how I personally feel about Greenwald, I’m bigger than that,” and carry on as professionals.
Photo by Gage Skidmore under Creative Commons license