Senior on Lapham and Blumenthal

Jennifer Senior has this essay, reviewing new anti-Bush books by Lewis Lapham and Sidney Blumenthal, in a recent issue of The York Times Book Review. Her verdict?

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.

Of Lapham specifically she writes:

People who are serious about politics don’t just preen. They report, explain, explore contradictions, struggle with ideas, maybe even propose suggestions. If they do none of these things, they’re simply heckling, and if the best Lapham can do is come up with 50 inventive new ways to call Bush an imbecilic oligarch, that’s all he’s doing: heckling.

I’d like to reproduce the parts of Senior’s review in which she addresses Lapham’s arguments, but there are none. For all her talk about explaining and struggling with ideas, Senior seems uninclined to take up the project herself. Instead we hear only that Lapham is angry, that he is an unhinged Bush hater, and that Senior feels more like throttling him than his political opponents. We are treated to a handful of Lapham quotes where he seems very angry indeed. But is Lapham right to think Bush an imbecilic oligarch? Is it possible that anger is the proper reaction to the administration abuses Lapham writes about? Senior doesn’t tell us.

Blumenthal comes in for similar abuse. But we do get one interesting tidbit:

After a while, it’s hard to deny that these columns have a certain cumulative power. 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, rather like Philip Roth telling the story of his protagonist in “Everyman” from the point of view of his illnesses.

Translation: Blumenthal is right, but I can’t look open-minded and above-it-all by pointing that out. So instead I’ll bewail Blumenthal’s tone, and throw in a gratuitous literary reference for good measure.

This style of reviewing, where you criticize a writer’s tone rather than address his assertions and arguments, is commonplace today. Elsewhere in the review, Senior informs us that she actually read all of Lapham’s book. She needn’t have bothered; her vapid and content-free review could easily have been written from the jacket material alone.

You see this as well in the press reaction to Ann Coulter. That her most recent book, like all her previous books, is a pack of lies from start to finish was deemed irrelvant by the numerous cable chat show pundits who discussed her work. Instead the big news was her nasty tone, coupled with her insensitive remarks about 9/11 widows. You searched in vain for any serious discussion of her arguments, such as they were.

Likewise, since Al Franken writes from a decidedly liberal perspective and attacks the Bush administration relentlessly he is dismissed as merely a liberal Ann Coulter. That Franken’s assertions of fact are nearly always correct whereas Coulter’s are usually wrong is irrelevant. Liberal websites respond to Coulter’s books by going page by page, footnote by footnote, showing how virtually all her quotations are grossly out of context, or that her facts are wrong, or that her arguments routinely omit crucial facts. You see nothing comparable from the right in responding to Franken. Yet both are treated as partisan hacks by mainstream media outlets.

The reason for this is not hard to spot. Political chat showpundits are not there to provide information or grapple seriously with arguments. Instead, they are there to express a certain range of opinions that is considered acceptable by the networks that have them on the air. Criticizing partisans for their tone is a cheap way for pundits to look wise and above politics, without having to think seriously about whether, maybe, one side of a partisan debate actually has better arguments than the other.

Ann Coulter is loathsome and contemptible not because of her tone, but because her books are breathtakingly dishonest. Al Franken is admirable because he makes strong arguments in favor of the things he believes. Sometimes anger emerges not from a lack of rationality, but merely from a sober assessment of the facts.


  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    October 3, 2006

    It’s so ironic that the broadcast journalism in America is in the shape that it’s in. We have the strongest institutionalized protections of free speech of any industrialized nation and yet we can’t get any MSM outlet to honestly consider arguments rather than regurgitate pseudo-moderate banter.


  2. #2 Figment
    October 4, 2006


    At one time everyone took ‘Intro to Logic’ classes, and knew that ad hominem arguements were logical fallacies.

  3. #3 IseFire
    October 4, 2006

    And Dr. Dawkins’ and Sam Harris’ new books are selling well on Amazon still. I posted about those two books on my blog today. Both books deal with ID, among other topics–even Harris’ book, which is impressively concise.

  4. #4 Jim Anderson
    October 4, 2006

    In his tenure as editor (he’s now “emeritus” at Harper’s) Lapham was maddening. At times his critiques were lucid and evidence-based, but at many others they were content-free rants, just as Senior describes. (I’d cite evidence, but most of them aren’t available online.)

    Read Lapham at his less unhinged here.

  5. #5 raj
    October 6, 2006

    From the post:

    Political chat showpundits are not there to provide information or grapple seriously with arguments. Instead, they are there to express a certain range of opinions that is considered acceptable by the networks that have them on the air.

    Um, no. They are there to get sufficient numbers of the “right kind of people” to watch the commercials–the right kind of people being those who are likely to buy the products advertised in the commercials. The customer is the advertiser who pays to advertise on the program, and the product is the viewer. The material between the advertisements is merely there to induce the viewer to stay and watch at least a few of the advertisements.

    If you think that I am kidding, I assure you that I am not. I learned that from the Wall Street Journal twenty or so years ago. Moreover, you can usually tell the expected audience of a program by the products that are being advertised on the program. The next time you watch network news, for example, pay attention to the products that are being advertised. And contrast that with products advertised on other programs, and on other channels. The expected audience for network news is obviously very different from the expected audience for the Daily Show (which actually seems to have more news than the network versions).

    BTW, it appears from your review that Jennifer Senior is little more than an apologist for the Bush II administration. Recall that the NYTimes company has matters before the Bush II administration-controlled regulatory agencies, and I’m sure that they (the NYTimes company) would like to stay on the good side of the administration.

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