The Unselfconscious Thinker

by A. Jay Adler on August 7, 2012
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Catching up on some reading shelved for later, I came across a few posts by Glenn Greenwald, soon to be carrying out his sorties from the even more muscularly composed redoubt  of the Guardian. (Having learned less than nothing, Salon.com, his former base, is now hosting the anti-Semitic Mondoweiss.) The excerpt below, to which I believe I was led by Chris Hayes’s thank you tweet, serves as its own kind of sendoff.

The Nation‘s Editor-at-Large and MSNBC’s weekend host, Chris Hayes, recently published a book documenting the fundamental failure of America’s elite institutions and exploring the causes and solutions:Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. What makes this book genuinely outstanding, and so rare, is that it is actually difficult to decide whether one agrees with many of its arguments. That’s because, as is typical of Hayes, he is more interested in grappling with complex questions in novel, non-obvious ways than he is in eliciting pat answers and easy agreement.

The highest compliment one can give a writer is not to say that one wholeheartedly agrees with his observations, but that he provoked — really, forced — difficult thinking about consequential matters and internal questioning of one’s own assumptions, often without quick or clear resolution. That achievement, at its core, is what defines Twilight of the Elites, and it’s what makes it so genuinely worth your time to read and think about. Provoking that type of questioning in people is a much more difficult task, and a much more valuable one, than inducing clear-cut, unequivocal agreement (which is often, though not always, accomplished by simply validating someone’s already held convictions). For that reason, Hayes’ book stays with you long after you are done reading it.

I have not read Twilight of the Elites, but I have little doubt that Greenwald’s description is correct. I recognize the qualities he notes as those that I, too, see in Hayes. It is also true that there is no one commenting on the American scene today to whom these terms of praise less apply than to Greenwald himself. It is not even that he falls short of some higher level of achievement in aspiring to these virtues. It is that Greenwald as writer and thinker (it is hard to choose among the labels – neither particularly applies) is the working antithesis of them.

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