Michael Kinsley gives us Exhibit A

Abusive ad hominem usually involves attacking the traits of an opponent as a means to invalidate their [sic] arguments. Equating someone’s character with the soundness of their [sic] argument is a logical fallacy.

So says the entry on “Ad Hominem” in Wikipedia, and, grammar errors aside, it’s good as far as it goes.

But here’s the problem. When I look around to find smart, articulate people using straight ad hominem arguments, those are very hard to find. Why? Because when people say, “That argument is wrong because the person making it is bad,” the problem with their case is pretty transparent. That, I think, is why you rarely see such straightforward ad hominem arguments. Oh, sure, you can find people on the street or in bars making straight ad hominems. But, as I say, it’s hard to find them in the written word.

Parenthetically, I will add that Paul Krugman often comes close. But even he will usually actually make an argument, and his attack on the character of those he disagrees with is typically more of a “drive by.” That is, he attacks the person’s character along the way. That’s consistent, by the way, with the New Yorker report on the fact that Robin Wells, Krugman’s wife, will often add the nasty comments on his opposition. “Drive-bys” are easier when someone else adds them.

So how do relatively sophisticated people use ad hominems? I think Michael Kinsley’s recent review of Glenn Greenwald’s book, No Place to Hide, has a number of good examples all in one place.

On Greenwald:

It’s a great yarn, which might be more entertaining if Greenwald himself didn’t come across as so unpleasant. Maybe he’s charming and generous in real life. But in “No Place to Hide,” Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss, convinced that every issue is “straightforward,” and if you don’t agree with him, you’re part of something he calls “the authorities,” who control everything for their own nefarious but never explained purposes.

Now, I haven’t read Greenwald’s book yet, and so it is possible that Greenwald does come across as a sourpuss. Glenn and I spoke at the same event in 2008 (see here for his speech and see if you can identify that person in the audience wearing glasses at about the 4:19 part–and here’s the start of my talk), and in my brief conversation with him, he seemed quite pleasant. Of course Kinsley allows for that.

But back to the issue. So what? Does Greenwald’s putative “sourpussedness ” undercut anything he says? Only if the point of Greenwald’s book is that Greenwald is not a sourpuss. But, as all sides recognize, that is not the point of his book. But by putting this in the piece as early as he does, Kinsley sets it up for us to be suspicious of Greenwald. This is a clever use of ad hominem by a skilled practitioner.

Or consider how Kinsley manages to dismiss Julian Assange. Kinsley writes:

There are narcissists like Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. These are self-canonized men who feel that, as saints, they are entitled to ignore the rules that constrain ordinary mortals. Greenwald notes indignantly that Assange was being criticized along these lines “well before he was accused of sex crimes by two women in Sweden.” (Two decades ago the British writer Michael Frayn wrote a wonderful novel and play called “Now You Know,” about a character similar to Assange.)

That use of ad hominem is even more clever. First, Kinsley tells us that Assange is “self-canonized.” How does Kinsley know? I have no idea. But even if Kinsley does know, would that undercut in any way what Assange has done to reveal U.S. government secrets? Of course not. Whether Assange’s actions were wise or right is still at issue. But his alleged self-canonization doesn’t help us resolve that. And notice also how Kinsley does a further “drive-by” by mentioning that Assange was accused of sex crimes. Finally, Kinsley tells us about a great novel “about a character similar to Assange.” And? That is relevant how? That is one clever paragraph.


I hasten to add that Kinsley is wise enough to realize that, beyond his ad hominems, he actually must make an argument. He tries and I will leave that to others to judge. I will point out that his basic argument is pretty extreme and more than a little ironic.

Kinsley writes:

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

So let’s see. It shouldn’t be Greenwald, and it shouldn’t be newspapers or their employees. Whom does that leave? I think it just leaves the government.

Where’s the irony? That Kinsley published this in the New York Times, which, you might recall, published the Pentagon Papers. Surely, then, Kinsley would argue that the New York Times should not have been able to decide to publish the Pentagon Papers but should have deferred to the Nixon administration.