The religion of balance and centrism

The political and media establishment insist on a two-sided, restrained critique without regard to accuracy or reality.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published March 10, 2008 1:24PM (EDT)

For any political commentator perceived to be any strain of "liberal," the first requirement for being accorded Seriousness status by the political and media establishment is "balance." To be deemed a sober and responsible thinker, one must Joe-Klein-ify oneself -- show what a good, thoughtful, decent liberal you are by eagerly spending at least as much of your time praising conservatives and bashing liberals as you do anything else. That's what a reasonable, thoughtful liberal does, by definition.

The converse applies just as rigidly. If you criticize the Right too stridently, condemn the Bush faction without qualification or restraint, or fail to posit an equivalence between Right and Left, then -- regardless of the accuracy or truth of your critique -- you are automatically deemed too partisan, shrill, and, worst of all, Unserious.

But this belief that "balance" and "centrism" are intrinsically sober is itself a deeply corrupt and shallow notion. What if one side really is far more destructive and more toxic than the other -- not even necessarily because one side is more inherently corrupt but just because it exerts far more power? What if the administration and its political followers who happen to be running the country at any given time really are radical extremists and unprecedentedly corrupt and dangerous? Under those circumstances, practicing Beltway "balance" for its own sake -- venerating Broderian "centrism" -- is deeply unserious, even dishonest and dangerous.

When there is grave imbalance in political power, corruption or extremism -- as there has been for the last eight years, at least -- then those who preach balance and demand a centrist critique of everything are the ones who are mindless, misleading partisans. They demand centrist equivalencies as an ideology, regardless of whether those equivalencies are real.

The Paragons of Balance and Centrism are actually often destructive. By design, they prevent exposure of truly radical and extreme political misconduct by demanding that every criticism be restrained, muted, two-sided, drained of intensity, and circumscribed by false equivalencies -- lest the critique be dismissed as a "partisan screed." In this regard, those who insist upon the intrinsic virtues of Balance and Centrism in political commentary are the greatest allies of extremism and the most loyal protectors of the politically corrupt.

* * * * *

All of this arose by virtue of a discussion in yesterday's comment section of the Publisher's Weekly review of my new book. The book principally criticizes the deceitful electoral tactics of the Right and the ways in which the establishment press enable those tactics. The PW review is posted on the book's Amazon page.

The PW review calls it a "provocative book"; points out that it "purports to expose the rank myth-making and exploitation of cultural, gender and psychological themes by the Republican Party" and that "shouldering much of the blame are the press and the media, including Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, Chris Matthews and even Maureen Dowd, all of whom propagate popular attitudes about virile Republicans and effeminate Democrats," but it then concludes with this condemnation:

Despite the antipathy the author feels for Coulter, his writing is much like hers. More a partisan screed than a reasoned argument meant to persuade undecided readers, this repetitive text frequently devolves into personal attacks and vast generalizations.

These are the same dismissive phrases that get applied over and over to any critic of the Right who fails to JoeKleinify oneself. Anyone who writes about the radicalism of the Right and the way it has corrupted our public discourse and political institutions -- or who writes about the media's vital participation in that process -- is writing nothing more than a shrill "partisan screed."

The critic who does that is automatically the equivalent of Ann Coulter -- as though the hallmark of Coulter is that she is merely one-sided, rather than the fact that she purposely makes false claims and spews despicable statements -- such as advocating violence against all sorts of political opponents from liberals, Supreme Court justices and "ragheads" -- in order to generate controversy and attention for herself.

Consider the following book reviews of a cross-section of liberals. In every case, the writer is dismissed with the same establishment platitudes -- as a shrill, imbalanced partisan, solely by virtue of the fact that they don't dilute their criticism of the Right with all sorts of equivalent criticisms of the Left, or because they don't display "balance" by acknowledging all the great virtues of the Bush administration and the conservative movement. These are just cliched dismissals, and they are always applied reflexively to any one-sided anti-Right critique without regard to whether the one-sided criticisms are accurate or not:

New York Times review, by David Kennedy, of Paul Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal:

As Krugman sees it, the modern Republican Party has been taken over by radicals. "There hasn't been any corresponding radicalization of the Democratic Party, so the right-wing takeover of the G.O.P. is the underlying cause of today's bitter partisanship." No two to tango for him. . . . .

Indeed, at times he seems more intent on settling his neocon adversaries' hash than on advancing solutions to vexed policy issues. "Yes, Virginia, there is a vast right-wing conspiracy," he writes, a sentence that both stylistically and substantively says much about the shortcomings of this book.

Like the rants of Rush Limbaugh or the films of Michael Moore, Krugman's shrill polemic may hearten the faithful, but it will do little to persuade the unconvinced or to advance the national discussion of the important issues it addresses. It may even deepen the very partisan divide he denounces. Where is the distinguished economist when we need him?

New York Times review, by Jacob Heilbrunn, of Joe Conason's It Can Happen Here:

In his zeal to indict the Republicans, Conason sounds as strident as Karl Rove depicting the Democrats as gutless appeasers.

New York Times review, by Jennifer Senior, of Lewis Lapham's Pretensions to Empire and Sidney Blumenthal's How Bush Rules:

Now, just in time for the midterm elections, the collected columns of two passionate Bush critics, Lewis H. Lapham and Sidney Blumenthal, are landing in bookstores. Both, to varying degrees, suffer from a distorting case of Bush-phobia.

Like his worst counterparts on the right, [Lapham] compares those he doesn’t like to fanatics, as when he refers to David Frum and Richard Perle as "Mufti Frum" and "Mullah Perle," adding, "Provide them with a beard, a turban and a copy of the Koran, and I expect that they wouldn't have much trouble stoning to death a woman discovered in adultery with a cameraman from CBS News."

Possibly, but provide Lapham with a blond wig, stiletto pumps and a copy of "The Fountainhead," and I suspect he wouldn't look much different from Ann Coulter. . . .

But Blumenthal's columns for both Salon and The Guardian of London, gathered together in "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime," are hardly pitched to win over undecided readers, either. . . .

But their content has also been curated with one aim in mind, and that's to cast the Bush administration in the grimmest possible light . . . . Blumenthal also has a taste for tiresome epithets — he calls Paul Wolfowitz "the neoconservative Robespierre" and compares Bush (yawn) to a cowboy. . . . It's hard to trust a narrator who only and always assumes the worst.

The left has often complained that what it needs isn't polite speech, but voices as pungent as those on the right. Maybe so. But even the angriest people on the right tend to be funny. Books like this one are a depressing reminder of how important it is for writers to have a slight sense of humor about themselves, if they want to be taken at all seriously.

Publishers Weekly review of Sidney Blumenthal's How Bush Rules:

Thus, Blumenthal's most heated rhetoric, like his claim of "a revolt within the military against Bush," winds up feeling overblown.

Washington Post review, by Michael Getler, of Eric Boehlert's Lapdogs:

Another defect is that Lapdogs too frequently appears overtly political; the book is written as though a cadre of Bill Clinton's defenders were its editors. Boehlert's case that a timorous press was intimidated by President Bush frequently rests on comparisons to the media's supposedly more aggressive approach to Clinton and former vice president Al Gore. This is arguable, at best, and the tactic diminishes the book's overall impact.

Slate review, by Jack Schaefer, of Eric Boehlert's Lapdogs:

[Boehlert's] thesis is that "the mainstream news media completely lost their bearings during the Bush years and abdicated their Fourth Estate responsibility to report without fear or favor and to ask uncomfortable questions to people in power." It's such a preposterous and overreaching thesis, I refuse to buy it. . . .

I'll keep this book on my desk and thumb it whenever I need a solid example of Bush-era press perfidy. But I don't have additional use for a book that defines MSM hackery as broadly as Lapdogs.

This is but a small sampling. One finds these same platitudes in reviews of books by virtually every overly strident critic of the Right -- such Naomi Wolf, Frank Rich and Molly Ivins, to say nothing of scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Tony Judt who have been more or less declared persona non grata in establishment circles for being way too far over the decreed line of respectability (no corresponding line exists for commentators on the Right -- see e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and Coulter).

* * * * *

Note that none of these dismissals has anything to do with the accuracy of the writer's critique or how well-documented it is. They just proclaim the critique too extreme and imbalanced, and therefore angry, partisan, overly broad and out of bounds, no different than Limbaugh or Coulter.

This is all just an attempt to limit, control and totally distort political discourse. One is permitted to offer tepid, balanced, respectful critiques of the Bush presidency and the conservative faction that sustained it, but there is a line that one must not cross, regardless of accuracy. Boehlert himself, in writing about the New York Times's dismissive review of Blumenthal's painstakingly well-documented attack on the Bush administration, put it this way:

But what makes this review so irksome is it doubles as a swipe at an entire political movement; a calculated attempt to dismiss and ridicule Bush critics who time and again have been proven right about his incompetence, yet remain MSM targets. Indeed, the Times critique strains mightily to paint Bush critics as "smug," "unglued," "condescending," "berserk", and "not wholly credible" "loathers" who reside beyond the mainstream. . . .

The review does not represent serious journalism or criticism as much as it does the latest round in the MSM game of gotcha against Bush critics who have the nerve to say what most CW-loving media insiders don't want to hear -- Bush's presidency is a radical one and a failed one.

It is the political and media establishment which supported and enabled the Bush presidency and all of its grotesque excesses. They therefore recoil at any commentary that points out the radicalism and deep corruption of the movement they enabled. And they harbor particular scorn for commentary that points out their role in all of it.

Thus, over the last eight years, the "shrill partisan hysterics" are the ones who warned -- accurately -- of the grave dangers of the Iraq War, documented the radical assault on our system of government, complained of the wholesale degradation of our political discourse and institutions, and objected to the complete erosion of our core political values and identity. Conversely, the Serious, Sober Thinkers were -- and remain -- the ones who saw both sides, who understood the good and important things the Bush administration was achieving, who vouched for their good intentions, who refrained from strident criticisms and confined themselves to respectful, balanced, supportive analysis.

In reality, it is the preachers of Centrism and Balance who stand exposed as the deeply irresponsible and mindless enablers of the last eight years. We needed far more unvarnished opposition to the administration and the political establishment that supported it, and far less of the Balanced Bush apologists and Centrist Mavens embodied by the likes of David Broder, Fred Hiatt and Joe Klein.

"Balance" and "centrism" are only virtues when prevailing circumstances are actually balanced and centered. When they're not -- as they haven't been for the last eight years at least -- respectful balance and restrained centrism are delusions, self-regarding luxuries, ones that can be as dangerous and destructive as they are slothful and unserious.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------