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The Good, the Bad,
and the Greenwald

Literate insights, occasional distortions, and forays into ugliness.

12:00 AM, Apr 16, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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In case the reader misses the initial insinuation, three sentences later Greenwald refers to Reagan's "combat avoidance." Some 70 pages later, Greenwald goes what is truly a rhetorical bridge too far, inveighing, "Ronald Reagan never got anywhere near war (claiming eyesight difficulties to avoid deployment in World War II), and he spent his life as a Hollywood actor." (Emphasis added.)

The historical record regarding Ronald Reagan's WWII service is clear. Reagan enlisted in the reserves in 1937. He went on active duty in April 1942. Being horribly nearsighted, something that virtually every Reagan biography recounts in some detail, the army classified Reagan for limited service. Like every other member of the Army, Reagan spent the war serving his country where and how his superiors told him to do so. Reagan did not see combat, but there is nothing in the record that supports the notion that he "avoided" combat. As for the line about him "claiming eyesight difficulties," a cheap shot that implies whether or not Reagan had "eyesight difficulties" is a matter of dispute, the less said the better.

I can already picture Greenwald's Anna Karenina-length blog post responding to this point. I expect some lawyerly parsing of the terms "combat avoidance" and "claiming." Nevertheless, unless Greenwald has done some scholarly research showing that Reagan actually did something to proactively "avoid" combat, research that he oddly opted not to footnote, this is a strikingly disingenuous not to mention sloppy effort to smear Reagan.

The sad fact is that Greenwald often opts for personal attacks rather than reasoned argument.

In a later section of the book, Greenwald devotes much verbiage to explaining what makes neocons tick, and what makes them so odious. It can't merely be that some neocons support wars without ever having served in the military. After all, many Democrats supported Bill Clinton's military actions. So it has to be something else.

Greenwald therefore explores the psychology of the typical neocon and concludes, "[They] strut around as though their support for war means that they are fighting it, and [they] consequently apply the warrior attributes to themselves." Forget the fact that Greenwald and I obviously disagree with this assessment--you'd expect as much.

What's jarring is that Greenwald has taken on such a ridiculous task as psychoanalyzing people he doesn't know. But the exercise is more frivolous still. Even if the typical neocon thinker is in the habit of dressing like Bismarck and barking out orders to his local barista like a feudal warlord, who cares? The people that Greenwald scolds in his book (other than the politicians) are judged by their ideas, not their intrinsic worth as people. Even if Glenn Greenwald successfully proved that all neocon thinkers are truly dreadful human beings, that wouldn't discredit their ideas.

All of which brings us to the distinctly Greenwald parts of the book--Greenwald takes an unseemly relish in engaging in irrelevant personal attacks. Personally attacking Ronald Reagan at least makes sense on some level. But personally attacking private citizens with different ideologies has a certain senselessness attached to it.

Even if every reader of Great American Hypocrites walked away from the several pages that attack Norman Podhoretz (to take just one of the many conservative thinkers that Greenwald assails) convinced that Podhoretz is just about the most awful person to ever walk the face of the Earth, Podhoretz's ideas would remain unscathed. Podhoretz has never argued that a reader should agree with his ideas because he is such a wonderful guy. Instead, the ideas have a life of their own.

Greenwald's own success makes his personal attacks particularly ironic. There was nothing in Glenn Greenwald's background that suggested he should have been one of the kings of the progressive blogosphere. And Russ Feingold didn't read passages from Greenwald's first book from the Senate floor because Greenwald is such a fine human being. Greenwald gained prominence because of the power of his ideas and his writing. Whatever prominence he retains will also result exclusively from the quality of his work. It's a mystery why he doesn't realize that it operates the same way at all spots on the ideological spectrum.

Great American Hypocrites will likely be a big hit. Whatever the equivalent of red meat is for the angry left, this book is it. As a confessed Greenwald admirer, I found it largely disappointing. Like the rest of us, Greenwald has both strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Too much of Great American Hypocrites indulges his fondness for pointless ad hominem attacks, the weakest aspect of his work.