Is Michael Kinsley Really That Stupid?

Probably not, but his latest column does illustrate perfectly how otherwise intelligent liberals can get trapped into saying incredibly stoopid things.

One of the characteristics that sets liberals and progressives apart from conservatives and of which we are most proud is our willingness to listen. Being a conservative means never having to say you’re sorry, never having to admit you’re wrong about anything no matter what the facts say, and never again having to actually listen to anybody who disagrees with you. You just memorize a few of the standard slogans and shout them as loud as you can, loud enough to drown out critics – and facts. It’s easy.

Left-wingers, otoh, have taken a blood oath of fairness, and they’re just as rigid about its application as conservatives are in despising it. Lefties will listen to anyone with respect, even if they are obviously raving lunatics frothing at the mouth and falling over backwards. And not just listen, mind you, but try to understand their point of view.

It’s all very fair and balanced but it can lead to precisely the same disregard of the truth as he said/she said journalism when you bend over so far to be “fair” that you give the same weight to a lie as a fact just because it comes out of your opponent’s mouth. For instance, Kinsley claims that Libby’s trial came about through a “perjury trap” similar to the one Ken Starr used on Bill Clinton.

[T]hose of us who thought impeachment was an outrageous abuse of power by the Republicans had to accept that Mr. Clinton had, clearly, lied. And our argument was this: Mr. Clinton made a mistake. He should not have lied. But he lied in answer to questions he should not have been asked. He should not have been put in a position where he had to choose: he could lie under oath, and be impeached or worse, or he could tell the truth, and embarrass himself and his family, and probably still be impeached or worse.

In short, he was caught in a “perjury trap.” Bill Clinton chose wrong — it all came out anyway — and he defeated impeachment, though you wouldn’t say he got away scot-free.

(emphasis added)

Right off the bat, Kinsley’s working from an opponent’s argument and doesn’t seem to realize the opponent is just plain full of it. Bill Clinton should not have been asked the questions, right, but not because they presented him with an unhappy choice. He shouldn’t have been asked the questions because getting a blow job is NOT a criminal offense. Legally – and morally – Clinton was faced with a perjury trap because the initial charges were bogus, designed to put him in an impossible position. That’s what makes it a trap, not the choices he didn’t have once it was sprung.

That’s a common mistake liberals often make. They accept a right-wing frame and then argue that what comes from the frame is wrong when it is the underlying frame itself that’s bullshit. Accepting the false foundational frame means being forced to defend a marginally defensible position at best. Worse, our sense of “fairness” pushes us into using the identical false frame when criticizing right-wingers. The false frame of a “perjury trap” and the impulse to be “fair” lead Kinsley into concluding that Libby was trapped in exactly the same way.

The Libbyites believe that their man is being railroaded and shouldn’t have been prosecuted, let alone convicted, for his involvement in a campaign of leaks intended to discredit a critic of the administration, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Mr. Libby’s critics respond that this isn’t about leaking, it’s about lying.

But of course this really is about leaking.

No, actually, it’s not. And it’s not really about lying, either. It’s about obstruction of justice. Bear that distinction in mind as Kinsley develops his “argument”.

It’s the nefarious, though inept, campaign to sully Mr. Wilson that outrages critics of the administration. True, Mr. Libby was not the source for Robert Novak, whose column identifying Mr. Wilson’s wife as a C.I.A. operative started the whole business. And Mr. Libby’s most prominent leakee, Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter who went to jail rather than reveal a source, didn’t actually write about the case. But Mr. Libby was part of the cabal that was conspiring to discredit Mr. Wilson and, more generally, to convince people that Iraq was strewn with nuclear weapons.

So when Mr. Libby was questioned by federal investigators pursuing the leaks, he too was caught in a perjury trap. He could either tell the truth, thereby implicating colleagues and very possibly himself, in leaking classified security information (the identity of Mr. Wilson’s wife), or he could lie. In either case he would be breaking the law or admitting to having done so, and in either case he could have gone to prison. Mr. Libby, like Mr. Clinton, made the wrong choice.

No, uh-uh. Libby was tried for obstruction of justice and found guilty. Yes, he was also found guilt of perjury but that was merely the venue of the obstruction charge – one of the venues, I should say. The obstruction charge was based as much on destruction of evidence as it was on lying, maybe more so, but the right-wing frame conveniently ignores that part of things, so Mr Kinsley does likewise.

It’s the similarity of the two frames that tricks Kinsley into assuming that the two cases are in some sense twins. Legally, they’re anything but.

Clinton was brought before a grand jury in the first place to answer charges that should never have been brought because the precipitating event was not a crime. In order to make the same claim for Libby, Kinsley has to be willing to argue that destruction of evidence of a crime and then lying to cover up first the crime and then his attempt to cover up the crime were not criminal acts and that the charges should never have been brought.

I doubt that he’d be willing to go that far, but that’s the right-wing argument within which he’s trapped. He’s accepted it and now, to be “fair”, he has to accept what it leads to.

Only he doesn’t. He ignores the glaring flaw at the heart of his argument and limits himself to comparing the “choices” each man had to make. But even there, he’s wrong.

Libby had a third choice not open to Clinton: he could have negotiated for immunity in return for telling the truth. Fitzgerald offered Libby that immunity and Libby turned it down. That’s what opened him to a perjury conviction. Clinton couldn’t do it because he was not faced with self-incrimination since there was no underlying crime he needed to negotiate immunity for.

Which leads to Libby’s fourth option: he could have stood on his 5th Amendment right not to incriminate himself and said nothing, as Monica Goodling – a recent law school graduate – knew enough to do. Libby’s been a lawyer for almost 30 years. Let’s not pretend he doesn’t know the rules just because that’s what his wingnut supporters want to pretend.

This is a classic case of a liberal not knowing where to draw the fairness line and a classic example of the kind of silly argument you wind up trying to make when you don’t. I don’t think Kinsley is stupid, but accepting a fraudulent frame sure makes him sound stupid.

Let this be a warning to all us lefties: Be fair to the facts, not frames that ignore them.


One response to “Is Michael Kinsley Really That Stupid?

  1. nicely done!
    short and to the point(s). very useful for refutation should you become engaged with a 30%’er.
    particularly liked how clearly the distinction between underlying crimes is spelled out.

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