Jon Chait on Naomi Klein

It’s always interesting to read a smart person’s intelligent yet devastating take-down of an argument, partly because it’s so difficult to do. The intellectual scene is littered with personal attacks, sweeping generalizations, or humorless nitpicking that leave even agreeable readers feeling sympathetic for the person on the other end.

If you want an example of a professional, thoughtful, detailed, and nonetheless devastating critique of a thesis, read Jon Chait’s review of Naomi Klein’s bestselling book The Shock Doctrine in the New Republic. It does what a lengthier book review is supposed to do which is contextualize the book before reviewing it. Read the whole thing. For those who don’t know, the Shock Doctrine’s thrust is that free marketers hunt for crisis and disaster so that, while chaos reigns, they can impose free market doctrines on an unsuspecting populace.

It used to be the “conversation” about an issue would stop here, or perhaps make its way onto the word count-constrained “Letters to the Editor” pages. In the era of blogs, however, subjects of criticisms can offer their own reply to higher profile critiques. Naomi Klein is no different. Here’s her response to Chait. Oh man.

Her response comes off to me as amateurish, partly because, in a usual sign of insecurity, she concedes almost nothing and instead styles herself (and her heroic research assistant) as underdog truth bearers saying the things we don’t want to hear but must. Amusingly, despite the fact that one of Chait’s complaints is she too quickly treats disparate ideas as a single entity, Klein decides to lump Chait’s essay in with another critique that came from Cato and address them together.

She opens her response by insisting that Milton Friedman did, in fact, support the Iraq war, by citing an interview conducted in German by the magazine Focus. Klein translates the German back to English to reach her conclusion about Friedman — a libertarian who does not support nation building and called the Iraq war an act of aggression. He’s also not fluent in German. Klein doesn’t find her charge remarkable. Had she a better understanding of the different strands of conservatism and the one to which Friedman belongs, she would know that her claim needs more evidence than a translated sentence which, even then, is rather ambiguous as to what Friedman is trying to say. The incoherence of her summary of conservative think tanks both in the book and her reply proves Chait’s point that she does not care to be bothered by nuance (such as libertarianism), preferring instead the simple explanation that the Chicago School (or that lovely evil catch-all “neo-cons”) ruins whatever it touches.

She stammers her way forward. Later, in a revealing sentence, she says only one significant error in the book has been discovered relating to Cheney’s profit potential in Halliburtun. To me, this is like conceding you misspelled a word and misses the point that it’s not only the facts she assembles but the way she assembles them that cause complaint. In one last flourish, she says, “We invite you to explore these documents, send us ones we missed, and come to your own conclusions.” Truly, is there a more cliched line among essayists straining to appear dispassionately even-keeled?

My take on Klein is that she is as surprised as anyone at her meteoric rise in influence. Without advance notice she’s been thrust into a spotlight that precludes backpedaling, retroactive clarifying, or “grey.” It’s a shame. As Chait says, there is merit and data to support some of her ideas. Unfortunately, the substance and complexity of these ideas seem to have been lost in the towering figure of the Naomi Klein logo and brand, and her new role as the unwavering flag bearer of the anti-globalization moment.

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