Friday, 5 December 2008

“Please Don’t Remain Calm”, by Michael Kinsley (W.W. Norton)

Kinsley-PleaseDon'tRemainCalmAn excellent collection of articles from one of America’s best opinion writers

The first time I noticed Michael Kinsley’s byline was when I read an article of his that appeared in TIME magazine back in 2006, in which he was discussing his brain surgery (he has Parkinson’s). His light touch dealing the subject, and the lack of any “pity-me” sentiment made me remember his name. I’ve been a loyal reader ever since. (The article is reprinted in this volume.)

Please Don’t Remain Calm is a collection of Kinsley’s articles that appeared in TIME, Slate (which he helped found), The Guardian and the Washington Post, among others. The articles within cover a pretty wide timeframe, with chapter one containing choice articles from 1995-1999. He touches on many subject, including “buck-raking” (the lucrative lecture circuit a lot of commentators avail themselves of), Newsweek’s refusal to run with the Monica Lewinsky scandal to begin with, Clinton’s impeachment, and the rise of importance, possibilities and promise of the internet.

The following chapters are each devoted to a single year of George W. Bush’s presidency, and cover an even broader range of subjects. Kinsley discusses his views on racial-profiling at airports, the 2000 election (including plenty on the drawn-out battle to reach a result), the Iraq War (of course), but he also talks about a particular spat that occurred between him and titan of right-wing radio and TV, Bill O’Reilly (these two articles are excellent), and the now ubiquitous nature of the phrase “God bless you, and God bless America”. Kinsley touches on some common tropes for those analysing and commenting on the USA – such as media bias, the comparative influence that journalism and business (i.e. “the general allure of large piles of money”) have when it comes to politics – but he manages to come at them from new or interesting directions, avoiding tired clichés and party-line positions.

Whether he’s discussing brain surgery, Pat Robertson or George W. Bush, Kinsley writes eloquently, authoritatively, in a tone that is appropriate for the subject, and with a keen eye for the hypocrisies of both American politics and Washington journalism. He writes with a distinct style, balancing a dry wit with insight. Mostly, Kinsley does this perfectly, but (by his own admission) his articles can verge on the slightly silly. He demolishes the arguments and fallacies of fear-mongers and people he clearly thinks have lost their senses in the aftermath of 9/11, and it’s clear from his calm writing that he was probably one of the few journalists in the US who didn’t lose their heads or cave to the constricting notion of patriotism peddled by the Bush administration.

With hindsight, many of Kinsley’s arguments and observations still hold up (if they haven’t been further justified with the passage of time and new White House information that has come to light in slow drips). In many ways, Kinsley’s articles are an excellent barometer of the evolving opinions of the American public. They are also filled with excellent deconstructions of the politics and public figures that have shaped the social, financial and military disasters over the past couple of decades.

Throughout my time reading this, the main thought that kept passing through my mind was simply, “I wish I could write this well…”

If you’re a fan of Matt Taibbi and Al Franken (when he’s doing reportage, rather than “satire”), then you’ll find plenty in Please Don’t Remain Calm that will make you both laugh and also think.

An excellent collection of commentary on the state of politics and journalism in America today. This comes very highly recommended.

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