Greenwald-Goldberg II: This Time It’s Personal

by A. Jay Adler on July 1, 2010
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There have been some more posts by both Glen Greenwald and Jeffrey Goldberg, with Joe Klein rousing himself from supine beach slumber (or whatever, on vacation) to throw a few punches in what has turned into a web free for all. And I should stay out of it? One can only imagine what Dave Weigel, whose firing begat all this, is thinking. I have offered my own thoughts already on the quality of Greenwald’s contribution. There has been more since, and one reader dug into my critique with some effort and offered his thoughts in the comments, deserving of response. I started to reply there, but the reply got lengthy enough for a post, so now it is that.

My further thoughts on Greenwald, in reply to a reader. The format is first, the reader’s quote of a passage from me, the reader’s commentary in italics, and then, in bold, my latest thoughts in response.


Your criticism of Greenwald:

“the tendency to characterise those who differed on Iraq not simply, if one believes it, as wrong, but as dishonest. ”

Here, you seem to imply that his belief in the dishonesty of many journalists who wrote pro-Iraq War coverage disqualifies him from making arguments that many journalists who wrote pro-Iraq War coverage were dishonest, by introducing a “tendency.” It seems like an attempt to poison the well and to create assumptions about his arguments without acknowledging their actual content.

The point is that Greenwald’s tendency is to characterize people as dishonest rather than provide evidence that they are dishonest. It is easy argumentatively to disagree with people, harder to prove them mistaken, and harder still to prove them dishonest. In fact, Greenwald in his original post makes not a single effort to establish dishonesty. He uses words like “error” and “false,” which apply to correspondence with fact, and once in his furious assault uses the slippery “falsehood,” which can denote the simply mistaken or a lie. He doesn’t even attempt to establish the lie, but the word has its connotation among the unsubstantiated charges of dishonesty.

“What loses, or should lose, trust is the overwhelming animus that motivates it. [...]There is a difference, though, between having a point of view and even passions (and succumbing, as anyone will, to some ill-advised invective) and forming one’s arguments out of the passionate point of view, rather than the passion from the argument.”

This passage seems to confirm that your interest is in raising doubts about his arguments by citing that he has strong beliefs in the positions that he argues for, and that should make us suspicious of his arguments because bad arguments are often made by people in order to convince other people to support positions that they believe in. Of course most arguments, bad or good, are made by people who believe in the positions that they are arguing for.

Yes, of course, but if that were the end of it, one could never revise one’s thinking. The reader used the word “beliefs.” I used “passions.” My point applies in either case, though the skepticism should be most raised by passions such as Greenwald’s. My phrase “forming one’s arguments out of the passionate point of view, rather than the passion from the argument” refers to constituting and shaping the argument to suit the passion or belief, rather than developing the conviction according to where the evidence and reason take one – what, for instance, the Bush administration clearly did in repeatedly reshaping its justifications for the Iraq war, even retroactively, when former rationales began to fail. I don’t seek to raise doubts in Greenwald’s arguments simply because he has strong feelings, but because the strong feelings lead him regularly to slant and to overreach, by making claims, of dishonesty, he does not substantiate. Further, his clear suggestion that Goldberg was effectively functioning as an Israeli agent – “aimed at scaring Americans into targeting the full panoply of Israel’s enemies” – is even defamatory in nature if not legally establishable as such.

“There may be establishment journalists who flatter and protect, but that is no one’s argumentative position. And is it, rather, the job description of journalist to expose and embarrass?”

To characterise the position of a person arguing against a press that “flatters and protects” powerful interests as a belief that the sole job description of a journalist is to “expose and embarrass” is to set up a straw man by creating a clearly false dichotomy.

On the contrary, here is Greenwald:

He apparently committed the gravest sin:  he exposed and embarrassed rather than flattered and protected a powerful government official, and in our upside-down media culture, doing that is a sign of irresponsibility rather than fulfillment of the basic journalistic function. [Emphasis added]

It is, indeed, a false dichotomy, created by Greenwald, not by me, and it is Greenwald in the emphasized language who claims that “to expose and embarrass” is “the basic journalistic function.”

“Greenwald (expose and embarrass) cannot hear Logan’s arguments[...]”

And you immediately assign that straw man as the central belief that motivates Greenwald in order to psychoanalyse Greenwald’s reaction to Logan, without even being considerate enough to hide the assigning of an irrational motivation to him within a rhetorical question (e.g. “Could an ‘expose and embarrass’ journalistic philosophy on Greenwald’s part have closed his mind to the actual arguments that Logan made?”)

Well, I established above that there was no straw man set up by me, though there was a false dichotomy presented by Greenwald. And if I became however clinical in my consideration of Greenwald, at least it was behaviorally so – I characterized his observable behavior in argument. He, on the other hands, makes scurrilous charges as to people’s motivations and even moral natures.

While you may not find many people who think that the only function of the press is to “expose and embarrass,” you will also not find many who think that to “flatter and protect” powerful people should be any part of the function of the press. Most agree that to “expose and embarrass” is one, very important, function of the press.

The reader here is adopting Greenwald’s own straw man, established via the false dichotomy. To repeat and extend a bit the quote offered earlier from my post:

There may be establishment journalists who flatter and protect, but that is no one’s argumentative position. And is it, rather, the job description of journalist to expose and embarrass? What if the subject does not warrant exposure?

I go on to state of Lara Logan’s argument:

that the reporter is in a human relationship, which for Hastings permits developing the pretense of a trust the subject should not be fooled into placing, and for Logan includes the possibility of actually respecting the subject and what he does. Subjects can, in fact, warrant either treatment.

The reader is here arguing with a position I do not hold.

“Notice I used the words ‘fighting’ and ‘enemy.’ Greenwald is amongst those who insist on conceiving widespread and organized Islamic terrorism as a law enforcement problem. Other people claim the nature of war in the contemporary era – access to massive amounts of conventional weaponry and potentially WMD, and ease of organization across national boundaries of non-state actors – has necessarily altered. This raises a host of complex issues, including that of how to confront citizens who side with the enemy. Were they advancing on a battlefield with weapon in hand, there would be no question. But since Greenwald will not acknowledge these complex new developments, these complexities are not represented in the discussion and so cannot be considered. Further, he loads his presentation with prejudicial terms such as ‘assassination.’”

In this passage, you use “complex issues” as a substitute for an argument. Greenwald believes that these “complex issues” do not keep considering terrorism as a law enforcement problem from being better than other options. You do not. Greenwald explains why he thinks that it would be better to consider terrorism as a law enforcement problem. You explain that Greenwald’s prejudice (as embodied in his insistence on referring to the tracking down and killing of individuals who are not on a battlefield and haven’t been convicted of any crimes by the word “assassination.”) prevents him from considering “complex issues” raised by “other people.” This is not good.

Actually, in the post I cite, Greenwald explains nothing of the kind. He may well have at some point in the past. I do not know. I would guess so. I do not call his position on combating/policing (even the verb is in question) terrorism a prejudice. It is a judgment he has made. That’s fine. What I say is that he slants his presentation of the issue. The reader’s use of the word “battlefield,” as in “individuals who are not on a battlefield” does the same. This is the very issue that is in question, whether an evolution has occurred in the nature of warfare that alters the conception of what a battlefield is. Will we say of someone who is a member of an adversarial organization to the U.S. and who is sitting at a computer in a suburban apartment in Uzbekistan, in plain clothes, attempting to crash the U.S. energy grid, while compatriots are attacking the DoD and financial systems networks, that he is not on a “battlefield”? Yes, this is an idea that is fraught with “complex” and worrisome considerations. My claim is that Greenwald simplifies these issues to his own ideological ends by evading them. That is not good.

But this raises the issue of for whom it is Greenwald writes. Though he not inappropriately trades on his legal and constitutional credentials, and loads his posts with links, so that the well-considered intellectual quality of his offerings is clearly meant to make its impression, Greenwald writes in these instances, particularly of Goldberg and Iraq, in highly charged emotive terms, and with the deficiencies I have already reasserted. Here is a phrase he uses in variations, in this case of Goldberg,

who relentlessly pounded the drums for war from his keyboard, which helped to bring about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings. [Emphasis added]

Now, this is an awful, lamentable truth, but it is a truth applicable to almost any war, be the war just or not. Human warfare is an awful, lamentable truth. It is a phrase, though, in the context of all the slanted argumentation and accusation and character condemnation, that serves as nothing more than a final, condescending screech at those fashioned by the cry to be one’s insensate moral inferiors. Surely, the fan base is pleased, but is this meant as genuine intellectual engagement with the issues? Are these arguments intended to influence anyone not swept up in their emotional current or who can conceive the dissents? I think not.

“it would take little effort to quickly concede ‘is not comparable’ if that is what he thinks, though this would lead Greenwald into that gray world he prefers to live beyond.”

I may not be understanding your metaphor correctly, but I read this as saying that by not explicitly characterising the Iraq invasion as not comparable to the Nazi invasion of Poland, he has chosen to stay in a world “beyond” a world of greys? My assumption is that this world “beyond” is a black and white one, though this comparison is a bit underwritten.

My question is: how would characterising the Iraq invasion as not at all comparable to a Nazi invasion avoid a black and white world, rather than the opposite?

It reads as if this is just a kludgy way of reinforcing the theme of some suspicious passion on Greenwald’s part, and combining it with a spatial metaphor which paints black and white beliefs as being “beyond” the “grey world” of pragmatism. It just sounds anti-intellectual to me, as if Greenwald is floating above the world that we live in, with its absolute and complete disimularity between the reaction of Sudeten Polish-Germans to the Nazis and Kurds to the Iraqi invasion forces, and choosing to fly around passionately and full of animus in his artificial black and white world created by his “closed, monovision of absolute [belief],” where people are held to what they have said and “complex issues” from the grey world are ignored. I don’t get it.

Let me see if I can clarify. Black and white is symbolic of simplicity, like the false dichotomy or dilemma of journalism that either “protects and flatters” or “exposes and embarrasses.” Gray represents complexity, the shades between black and white that contain exception, variation, permutation, multiplicity. Greenwald tends to reduce the latter to the former, for instance, in the follow-up post responding to Goldberg, when he countered Goldberg’s claim about the welcome response of the Kurds to the American invasion. Yes, Greenwald’s fundamental point is correct – this welcome response in itself is not dispositive of the justness or, at a minimum, defensible character of the war. But is that really the whole matter? Is it really as simple as that? This is when context matters.  Greenwald sought to give himself a “get out of jail free card”:

It should go without saying, but doesn’t: the point here is not that the attack on Iraq is comparable to these above-referenced invasions. It may or may not be, but that’s irrelevant.  The point is that every nation which launches even the most brutal, destructive and unprovoked wars of aggression employs moralizing propaganda to claim that their aggression engenders magnanimous and noble ends, and specifically often points to segments of the invaded population which welcome the violence and invaders.

Implied is that Greenwald is making a one-point comparison only – implied, but not actually stated, because Greenwald says the Iraq War “may or may not be” comparable to Nazi and other invasions. I stated that it would have taken little effort – no more than the “may or may not be” – to say that Iraq isn’t otherwise comparable, yet Greenwald very precisely chose not to make that effort. Is this a niggling point? Not if you are familiar with Greenwald’s politics and positions. Not if you read the conclusion to his post, when he writes,

The Jeffrey Goldberg Media continues to exert substantial influence and wreak real havoc, but as is true for most of America’s once-respected institutions — and, indeed, as is true for America itselfit’s inexorably weakening and crumbling, and the merit-free elites (like Goldberg) who cast themselves as the unfair victims are, in fact, the prime authors of their own demise. [Emphasis added]

This is one of those times at which Greenwald seems to run the circle to the meeting point on the Right. Any Tea Partier could have written that. To someone not in step with Greenwald, someone not convinced of the “depravity of Goldberg’s Iraq war justifications” [emphasis added], as Greenwald put it in his third update to the original Goldberg post, it may not “go without saying” that Greenwald doesn’t actually think there is a reasonable Nazi comparison, especially when he pointedly declines to say there is not, and then goes on to make another not-comparison comparison.

Finally, even when Greenwald adds, regarding any comparison or non-comparison, that “that’s irrelevant” – he’s wrong. It is relevant, not in and of itself, as I have already acknowledged, but in conjunction with other factors. It’s that complexity issue again. Who is not going to pay attention to how the nationals respond to an invading force, as some indication of the nature of things? How would the histories of the Second World War differ from what they are if the French and Italians had run from the Allied forces, if they had shot at them from the roof tops and waged insurgencies? And even then, insurgencies need to be scrutinized as to their membership, program, and ultimate purpose. Greenwald’s argument regarding the reception of invading forces is essentially a variation on “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” – probably the most ill-considered, unprincipled, and relativistic excuse for political wisdom circulating in the world today. As in all matters, the truth is arrived at through the hard intellectual work of sifting through the evidentiary sands of reality and learning to distinguish the fool’s gold from the real thing. T’aint easy. But if you can’t tell the Iraqi insurgency from the French Resistance, if you can’t see the difference between the Nazi invasion of Poland and the American invasion of Iraq, even if you opposed it, or it sticks in your craw to state it, you’re one of them 49’ers who’s goin’ home broke.

Update: Some further consideration on the character of the argument taking place, mostly by Greenwald. Yaacov Lozowick, one might think, caviled with Greenwald over the applicability of the term “invasion” to German advances into the the Sudetenland, Slovakia, Austria, and Bohemia. It’ s pretty clear that Lozowick was focused on the combative element of invasion. Still, it appears from various posts – Brad DeLong and Kevin John Heller, for instance – that as the word cavil suggests, this was semantic distinction not worth making in this argument: historical reference to these advances as invasions are apparently rather common. What is clear, though, in all the back and forth, is how much personalized antipathy is involved – Brad Delong, whom I like intellectually, doesn’t, intellectually, like Goldberg, so DeLong is pleased to take that side of the argument – and how much the antipathy influences the argumentation, for no one more than Greenwald. It doesn’t take great insight to see that Lozowick was trying to score a quick hit on Greenwald (a temptation I quite understand), but what does Greenwald make of it? It is for him the

ironic attempt by Lozowick and Goldberg to minimize Hitler’s crimes by insisting that he never “invaded” Czechoslovakia and Austria.

Really. The author of one of the more prominent blogs in defense of Israel, of Right to Exist, A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars and of Hitler’s Bureaucrats, and former Director of Archives at Yad Vashem was trying “to minimize Hitler’s crimes.” This is serious, honest argumentation? In the very midst of complaining that others are distorting your own arguments? To quote Greenwald in that very regard, “It’s almost parody.”

Now, today, Greenwald has a post defending arguing against the invocation of Godwin’s law – the injunction against the common and trivial use of Nazi analogies. Except no one invoked it. People drew implications from it the Nazi analogy, and I have tried to show above why they were not engaging in distortion by doing so – let Greenwald attempt the same work regarding the preposterous claim of Goldberg’s and Lozowick’s attempt “to minimize Hitler’s crimes” – but no one invoked Godwin. And the advice against the too facile resort to Nazi analogies is not simply mistaken for Greenwald, but, in his typical hysterical overkill, odious. One can understand why he might feel this way, however – in order to leave them more readily employable, perhaps, for use against Israel?

Update II: Lozowick provides further support for his claim regarding “invasion” in the comments section of his original post.



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