Quite a few conservative commenters focused on the length of Bill Clinton's socks when criticizing his Fox News interview with Chris Wallace. Or on the question whether his eyes looked piggy or not. It's a fun way of criticizing something. For instance, I could add that Chris Wallace's hair looked like it was made out of brown porcelain. Then we could have a debate to death on whose criticism was the most devastating.
Jennifer Senior's recent review of two progressive/liberal critiques of the Bush administration were a little like this. She found the books: Lewis H. Lapham's Pretensions to Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration, and Sidney Blumenthal's How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime defective in style. Too passionate, not funny enough. This is how she summarizes the issues she had with the books:
Since the president's re-election, loathers of George W. Bush have had no shortage of cudgels with which to club him: a distressingly belated response to Hurricane Katrina; an experiment in warrantless wiretapping; a modest parade of indictments; a nation-building project so distant from its original intent that our troops are now caught in a proto-civil war. One can certainly understand how these developments — and Bush's correspondingly rotten approval ratings — have emboldened the opposition. The problem is that these developments have also made the president's critics more susceptible to rhetorical excess, and Bush, like his predecessor, already has an impressive gift for bringing out the yawping worst in those who disagree with him. Otherwise reasonable people go slightly berserk on the subject of his motives; on the subject of his morality, the hinged fall off their door frames and even the stable become unglued. This is both an aesthetic problem and a substantive one. Substantively, it means gerrymandering evidence so that inconvenient facts don't make it onto the map. And aesthetically, it means speaking in a compromising and not wholly credible tone.
In short, not enough cucumber sandwiches and tea with lemon, not enough stern glances over horn-rimmed spectacles. Not enough distance or neutrality. Instead, passion and anger and all those other kinds of sticky and uncomfortable issues: fairness, justice, democracy and such. And definitely not enough false balance. These writers should have dug up the whole field in the search for any small artifact proving good things about the Bush administration, perhaps something about painting schools in Iraq (while not painting them in New Orleans after Katrina).
Senior is actually quite funny in that quote. Note how she first condenses all the disasters of the administration into a sentence or two ("a distressingly belated response to Hurricane Katrina; an experiment in warrantless wiretapping; a modest parade of indictments; a nation-building project so distant from its original intent that our troops are now caught in a proto-civil war") but then argues that the authors of the two books should have tried to balance this with something else, something good and wholesome, but she never suggests anything that would fit the bill. It's like demanding that stories about a severe illness should balance the description of the pains and the suffering with something uplifting and cheerful. And humorous:
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.
Even the angriest people on the right tend to be funny? Really? I can do the kind of humor they practise, Jennifer. Are you sure you'd like me to propose turning countries into parking lots with nuclear bombs or attacking conservatives with baseball bats? Just for the sake of a cheap laugh or two? Ok.
A very different way of reviewing these books is possible. It could have started with Senior's first paragraph, quoted at the beginning of this post, but it could have then noted that if many formerly quite logical and moderate people suddenly seem to go berserk over something, well, perhaps they have a reason for doing so. Perhaps they have not all suddenly caught some odd mental disease causing unhinged behavior and general ranting and raving. Perhaps something pretty awful has indeed happened and deserves to be analyzed without little jokes scattered over every other page. It's even possible that there are phenomena in this world which do not lend themselves to the false balance Senior appears to suggest.
It could be a worthwhile exercize to look up the book reviews of conservative books of this kind. Are those authors accused of insufficient impartiality or of excessive lunacy? Are their books reviewed while ignoring what the books actually try to achieve?