How Greenwald Argues

by A. Jay Adler on July 30, 2011
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We’ve had an interesting and now long-running thread of comments going from Rob H.’s guest post the other day, “Glenn Greenwald’s False Accusation Against The New York Times.” I’ve offered my latest contribution in the comments, the full length of which you can reach via link at the end of this post. I thought I would highlight here my comments on Greenwald rather than the other topic of Israel with which the thread also became involved.

This commentary thread has intertwined criticism of Greenwald on a different topic with the topic of Israel. Ultimately, I think, for those critical of Greenwald and of certain ideological trends he represents in his peculiar way, those two strains have the same source.

Here is a typical passage from Greenwald that Rob quotes:

“Conversely, the U.S. Government most certainly did pursue vastly increased security powers in the name of McVeigh’s attack: the Clinton administration, citing the Oklahoma City attack, demanded a full-scale prohibition on all computer encryption that the Government could not access, as well as significantly increased domestic eavesdropping powers, while Congress — by an overwhelming majority — enacted the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 that severely infringed due process rights, created new Terrorism crimes, and vested the government with a litany of vast new prosecutorial powers — all galvanized by the McVeigh attack (read more from The New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse on how both parties exploited the Oklahoma City bombing to significantly increase the government’s surveillance and police powers).”

Vague and diffuse adjectives and adverbs for Greenwald are ideational cluster bombs. Based just on those few I highlighted one might think 1996 ushered in the beginnings of a police state. Undoubtedly, there are readers of Greenwald who do think we already live in a police state. Language, like the metaphors of violence I mentioned earlier, can create the reality in which we choose to live. There is, too, the mixture of what the government pursued and Clinton demanded with what the Congress enacted. How many readers of that passage know how these laws actually are changed based on these events?

Rob quotes this passage:

“Regardless of the justifications of these wars — and Norway is in both countries as part of a U.N. action — it is simply a fact that Norway has sent its military to two foreign countries where it is attacking people, dropping bombs, and killing civilians.”

“On a weekly basis — literally — the U.S. and its Western allies explode homes, mangle children, extinguish the lives of innocent people, disrupt communities, kill community and government leaders, and bring violence and terror to large numbers of people — those are just facts.”

Greenwald is no real writer anymore than he is a genuine thinker, so it would probably take skills he lacks to argue with any less integrity. On the larger level, these two bathetic paragraphs would apply, allowing for anachronism, to every war ever fought in the history of humankind, regardless – and why, pray tell, regardless? – “of the justification of these wars.” (Don’t justifications matter?) More narrowly, “attacking people [just people, any, old people], dropping bombs, and killing civilians” certainly sounds purposeful to those effects, doesn’t it? “

[T]he U.S. and its Western allies explode homes, mangle children, extinguish the lives of innocent people, disrupt communities, kill community and government leaders, and bring violence and terror to large numbers of people.” Sounds purposeful again, doesn’t it? What monsters! If only it weren’t for “the U.S. and its Western allies,” what peaceful, terror-free and unmangled and unextinguished lives we might all be leading. And this manipulative combination of purposeful agency and bathetic description is labeled “just facts.”

The kind of person capable of arguing in this manner is the bullshitter. In “The Hypocrisy and Bullshit of Glenn Greenwald,” I quoted thusly Harry G. Frankfurt from On Bullshit:

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.

(Full comment here…)

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