I’m confused. If a heart surgeon wrote an op-ed hectoring Americans into eating more chicken-fried steak, we’d scratch our heads and say, “Hmmm, should he be doing that?” If Gloria Steinem exhorted American men to flirt more, and maybe even grab a choice handful of their secretaries every now and then, we’d say, “What’s wrong with this picture?” If Bill Bennett wondered aloud, “Why make a big deal about the occasional hooker, so long as the wife doesn’t know?” most of us would say, “Maybe I’m missing something.”
So that’s why I’m confused by Michael Kinsley’s column this morning in the Washington Post. In an op-ed oddly titled “Listening to Our Inner Ashcrofts,” he makes an impassioned (for Kinsley) case that people should be less careful about what they say. He notes Ashcroft’s comment, “those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty… only aid terrorists.” He describes this observation as “fatuous” without explaining why or how it is so. And he then cites Ari Fleischer’s admonition that people “need to watch what they say.” Kinsley concedes that even he has been more careful about what he’s said or allowed to be published in Slate since September 11, because he’s been listening to his “inner Ashcroft.”
Why he describes this impulse to self-censor as listening to your “inner Ashcroft,” rather than your “inner Fleischer,” is something of a mystery. Unless, of course, Kinsley feels compelled to take a cheap shot at Ashcroft (whom he doesn’t like) while complimenting Fleischer (whom he considers “brilliant”).
Who knows? In fact, who cares?
Well, that’s an interesting question. Normally, Kinsley does. In fact, Kinsley — a brilliant writer and editor who’s shown me considerable kindness — also happens to be American journalism’s leading overseer of niggling details. As the anti-pope of pedantry, he has devoted much of his career to pulling at tiny threads of rhetorical or logical inconsistency and claiming to unravel vast tapestries of ideological faith in the process.
In fact, everyone knows this. Including, no doubt, Kinsley. Critics and fans alike have been saying it about him for almost two decades. Kinsley’s first collection of columns was a book entitled Curse of the Giant Muffins. The title was not an implied explanation for what has happened to Tyne Daly, but rather a reference to a column he wrote about the Reagan administration. Apparently, Rex E. Lee, the former solicitor general, once commented that public-service employees don’t necessarily get paid enough to buy name-brand muffins, such as Thomas’ English Muffins. Instead, he lamented, they have to buy the generic brand, like the kind they sell at supermarkets like Giant. Get it? Sort of like saying Whammy of the Safeway Toilet Paper.
Well, Kinsley uses this offhand comment by Lee as a justification for lampooning Reaganites for their habit of selling out after they leave government service. You don’t see the connection? Well, Kinsley does — and he’s very entertaining in the telling, if memory serves.
More recently, Kinsley noted President Bush’s funny joke at the Yale commencement: “And to the C students, I say, you, too can be president of the United States.” From this entirely innocuous aside, Kinsley goes on at length to denounce Bush as a fraud, the hypocritical scion of privilege:
Sure, a C student can become president. It helps if his father was president first and his grandfather was a senator and he was born into a family that straddles the Northeast WASP aristocracy and the Sun Belt business establishment. And a C student at prep school can get into Yale by adopting a similar action plan of strategic birth control. (That is, controlling whom you’re born to.)
Virtually every column he’s ever written on stem cells, abortion, or anything having to do with pro-life conservatives contains some variation of the “If they were really serious…” potshot:
Reacting to news of the first cloned human embryo this week, President Bush said: “We should not as a society grow life to destroy it. It’s morally wrong in my opinion.” Taken literally, this would cover raising cattle or even growing wheat. Presumably the president means human life and includes embryos in that category.
Har har and touché. But while he’s eager to tell us why Bush’s position lacks “moral seriousness,” Kinsley feels little need to tell us what a morally serious policy would entail. You can sometimes infer what Kinsley thinks is a better policy, but usually he’s simply content to shake someone else’s proposals, like a dog with a sock, without offering any of his own.
In a column titled “Republicans for Hillary,” Kinsley declares all “pro-family” conservatives to be “self-righteous” idiots and hypocrites, because they support parents’ rights in America and oppose sending Elián Gonzalez back to Cuba. But were they right on the merits of this case?
Oh sure, maybe, Kinsley concedes. But that’s not the point. Actually, it’s almost never the point. The point is almost always to catch conservatives in a rhetorical inconsistency, even when they might be right. Isn’t it possible that Elián Gonzalez’s is a very different case than the prattle offered in It Takes a Village? Isn’t this precisely the sort of category error Kinsley would mock — if it had been offered by a Republican?
As I noted, this is not a new observation. In a 1987 review of the muffin book, Daniel Seligman wrote of Kinsley that he’s a “satirist who seems to enjoy nothing so much as beating up on people he regards as phony…” “However,” Seligman added, “the ad hominem approach has its limitations. If you don’t watch out, you can use up all your firepower taunting some party to a controversy who seems insincere — and meanwhile avoiding judgments about the underlying issue.”
To underscore this point, Seligman counted the total number of columns in Curse of the Giant Muffins dealing with affirmative action, race, merit, etc. There are seven, all of them denouncing Republicans for not being as “color-blind” as they claim, or for not doing enough about civil rights in the old days. “Okay so far,” Seligman writes. “But after reading several of his articles on the subject, I’m still not clear whether Mike himself favors colorblind outcomes. He says that affirmative action is ‘probably a mistake’; he never does tell you what policy is probably correct.”
So now Kinsley’s saying that people have been too likely to indulge their “inner Ashcrofts.” This is terrible, according to Kinsley, because it has resulted in Bill Maher being less funny than he used to be, something many of us considered a metaphysical impossibility (and Kinsley overlooks the fact that Maher wasn’t joking so much as trying to sound serious while cribbing from Susan Sontag when he called Americans “cowards”). Compounding this tragedy, writes Kinsley, is the fact that it’s been unwarranted, because there’s been no dissent.
Admittedly this hasn’t been Vietnam, but the former New Republic editor is simply flat-out wrong, as his former magazine’s regular “Idiot Watch” attests. Indeed, just because the normally bitingly liberal Slate has dedicated itself to the valuable task of explaining why so many East Asian countries end in “Stan” doesn’t mean that other liberal publications haven’t been more hardcore. The fact that Kinsley didn’t focus on the inanities of the Left says more about his blindspots than it says about the reality of public discourse.
More to the point (you were wondering where that was, weren’t you?), Kinsley thinks the culture loses something important when people are careful about what they say:
What gets suppressed when you’re watching what you say is not formal political dissent or important revelations about government malfeasance. Those things you say with care in any event. It’s the lesser criticisms of our government and our leaders, the odd speculative comment that you’re not even sure of yourself, the joke that may fall flat. But these are important too.
That’s true, I suppose. But these things are more important to some people than others. The “odd speculative comment” and the jokes that may — or may not, in Bush’s case — fall flat are the grist for Kinsley’s mill. When people are more careful about what they say — and, more important, when the things they say need to be taken more seriously (as opposed to being ridiculed with debaters’ tricks) — Kinsley’s normally appropriate approach becomes, in his words, “inappropriate at this extraordinary moment.”
No wonder he sounds like a heart surgeon passing out recipes for mozzarella sticks soaked in butter. He needs the business.
1. Hmmmhmm butter.
2. Rod Dreher is starting to earn his keep! Read his first piece for NRO (as a staffer, anyway), on that notorious rapper, Cornel West.