The Matter of Glenn Greenwald

by A. Jay Adler on January 24, 2012
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Let a hundred blogs bloom: let a hundred schools of condign retribution contend.

Something like that. Mao was so ahead of his time in so many ways. In this blooming bloggery, stars arise, tall stalks that reach for the sky. Lesser plants, leaning toward the light, bend in their direction. They lean toward Glenn Greenwald. What is it that attracts? We’ve done some analysis already, multiple times. Still the hothouse humidly blushes. Very recently, I considered Greenwald on Christopher Hitchens soon after the latter’s death. But while Hitchens has been dead over a month now, the influence of influential writers influences on: only a week ago, John R. MacArthur of Harper’s, having already written this of Hitchens, was led by the very same Greenwald post to reconsider and offer in follow up this. How much did MacArthur understand of the rhetorical display to which he responded? Would his deepened insight, once again, change anything? We can only wonder. Nonetheless, we should understand, shouldn’t we?

In the following guest post, cross-posted by Reilly at counter-dominance, the Greenwald post on Hitchens is analyzed yet again, in more precise rhetorical terms, offering even deeper insight into deceptive strategies Greenwald tends to repeat, and some of which, as I will argue in the next day or so, have become a standard M.O., among one school of the Hundred Flowers, in argumentative misdirection.

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Greenwald’s self-display

The post-mortem of Christopher Hitchens’ public persona is well over and whether or not there’s an Eternity where Hitchens now resides doesn’t change the fact that, for the rest of us, his afterlife lasted about six days. During that time his body of work was autopsied, his psyche was dissected and his character was examined by an impromptu convention of socio-political pathologists-cum-morticians who vied to prepare his legacy for final viewing. It was an undertaking of competing persuasion — an open casket filled by various writers with carefully directed words, the words establishing the significance of what those authors believed should remain, the remains thus becoming a concentration of certain valuations, and the valuations, like pallbearers, leading the respective processions to their opposing destinations; praise or censuretribute ordenunciationencomium or vituperation.  It was a classic demonstration of epideictic rhetoric and, as is the nature of the epideictic — I display for the audience this person’s virtues – or — I expose to the audience this person’s vices — these writings, even in the cases when both commendation and condemnation were mixed to some degree, were presented straightforwardly.  Regardless of their conclusions or their ability to persuade that is the one element these writings had in common;  the authors engaged the subject directly, whether through sentiment, feeling, intellect, or reason.  In short they were honest in their approach, however influenced by point of view.  The substance and merit of the arguments these writers put forth about Hitchens — whether positive or negative – doesn’t interest me.  All of that ground has been covered and I don’t intend to exhume Hitchens for further appraisal, nor will I attempt to resurrect the battle over posthumous perception.

There was one piece of writing during that six day period which I will address.  It was forensic in nature rather than epideictic, or, more accurately, it was a manufactured forensic within which there was an epideictic.  Unlike the aforementioned pieces of writing, this one was the opposite of straightforward.  In fact it was so thoroughly dishonest from premise to particular that one would need to scour the work of right-wing pundits to find its equal.  I’m speaking of the article “Christopher Hitchens and the Protocol for Public Figure Deaths.” written by Glenn Greenwald and published on his blog at Salon on December 17.
Right from the title Greenwald apprises us of the injustice that he’s compelled to tilt against; a “protocol” which is inhibiting criticism of Hitchens upon his death, a protocol which has its roots in the “unhealthy conflation of appropriate post-death etiquette for private persons and the etiquette governing deaths of public figures.”  In order to illustrate this protocol, Greenwald spends about one third of his article recounting Ronald Reagan’s funeral and the media’s handling of that spectacle.  In order to prove a parallel situation at work with Hitchens, Greenwald, well…does nothing.  The inference is supposed to be enough.  If you’re looking for concrete instances of “etiquette-based prohibitions on speaking ill of the dead”  directed towards Hitchens you won’t find any.  Greenwald offers no hyperlinks but an abundance of hyperbole:

Nobody should have to silently watch someone with this history be converted into some sort of universally beloved literary saint. To enshrine him as worthy of unalloyed admiration…

Hitchens’ champions don’t just want him to be loved, but beloved, and not simply beloved but universally beloved, and not measured as a mere writer, but beatified as a literary saint.  They don’t want only to memorialize him but to enshrine him.  They’re not satisfied with a degree of admiration, they want unalloyed admiration. Greenwald is firing rounds of fully loaded language, but who is he aiming at?  Not the un-cited and unspecified admirers of Hitchens.  And not Hitchens himself.  Greenwald’s aiming at his readership.  He’s discharging bursts of smoke and emotion to cloud the field and obscure the figure of the straw man he’s created.

Nor should anyone be deterred by the manipulative, somewhat tyrannical use of sympathy: designed to render any post-death criticisms gauche and forbidden.

Nothing defuses loaded language and exposes vague accusation more efficiently than the question mark:  Who were these manipulative tyrants who suppressed criticism under the guise of sympathy?  And why wouldn’t they deserve a link, or at least one quote?

But demanding in the name of politeness or civility that none of that be balanced or refuted by other facts is to demand a monopoly on how a consequential figure is remembered, to demand a license to propagandize….

Who made these demands?  Where are the links and the quotes?  Did this happen on the internet?  Demands for politeness and civility on the internet generally get nothing but a chuckle and a pejorative or a pile-on of derision, as they should.  Certainly nobody would take that seriously, let alone pretend that it was an oppressive force or actual obstacle.  If these demands were made by one or more of the establishment media stars then why not identify the person or persons?  If Greenwald could produce a quote from Judy Woodruff about Reagan’s funeral, and if, as he states, the same “protocol” was at work in Hitchens’ case, then why couldn’t he produce a quote about any of his claims listed here?

I could go on citing the exaggerated and misleading language meant to angry up the reader’s blood with righteous indignation — “But what should not be tolerated are prohibitions on these types of discussions…” – and the weasel words — “There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins.” – meant to insinuate rather than demonstrate, but there’s no need to hold up each soiled garment one by one.  There are other points to be made.

Besides the biased, emotion-laden language, the over-the-top melodramatic phrasing, and the caricature of phantom demands in these passages, there’s also an underlying current of victimhood.“Nobody should have to silently watch…” lamented Greenwald in that first quote.  Indeed nobody did have to silently watch, least of all Greenwald who is firm in his view of the influence that the blogosphere in general exerts on political discourse and opinion, and even more adamant about the measurable effects generated from his own personal platform.  Greenwald’s colleagues at Salon, Alex Pareene and Michael Lind, certainly didn’t “silently watch”; they both wrote stinging criticisms of Hitchens.  And although Greenwald couldn’t point to a single example of pro-Hitchens protocol enforcement, he did manage to link to criticisms of Hitchens from three other bloggers; Corey Robin, John Cook, and Aaron Bady.  The pretense of victimization, like the other manipulative elements I mentioned, all have the same source –Greenwald’s self-indulgence in pursuing a forensic argument based on a false premise and a fictional injustice rather than straightforwardly offering an epideictic of his own.  The wasted word count between the Reagan conflation and the sophistry-stuffed straw man would have left him plenty of room for unrestrained criticism.  But maybe that’s the problem since most of the space Greenwald actually dedicates to criticism of Hitchens is filled with words borrowed from others.  Maybe he just didn’t have all that much to say.   After all Greenwald does remark that he “rarely wrote about (Hitchens) because… there was nothing particularly notable about him.”  Strangely though, he contradicts that when he admonishes his readers that to have a public discourse without criticizing Hitchens is to “insist that (his) actions were either themselves commendable or, at worst, insignificant.”  And in one of the quotes above, Greenwald refers to Hitchens asa consequential figure.” Perhaps there’s a protocol for public figures who are not “particularly notable” when alive but become immediately significant after death.
One of the the authors Greenwald chooses as a prop for criticism-filler is George Orwell, although Greenwald can hardly be singled-out for that.  On the internet left, whether blogger or commenter, it is absolutely impossible to go to the Orwell once too often.  There are so many Orwell quotes, so many references to Animal Farm and 1984, and so many invocations of the term “Orwellian” that now when I run across them my jaw goes slack and my eyes glaze over — Homage to Catatonia.  There’s Orwell-the-political-Nostradamus, Orwell-the-incorruptible-truth-teller, and most often, Orwell-the-validator-of-whatever-point-I’m-making-now.  That’s the one Greenwald opts for, so he pulls a passage from the sacred text of Orwell and clubs Hitchens over the headstone with it.  I have no problem with that but I do have to wonder (I guess I’m not immune from the phenomenon) what Orwell-the-essayist would have to say about Greenwald’s unsupportable and intellectually dishonest piece of writing.

Besides commandeering the sword of Orwell to use against Hitchens, Greenwald enlists Hitchens himself as shield against more of those phantom etiquette crusaders.  In an update to his piece, Greenwald writes:

The day after Jerry Falwell died, Hitchens went on CNN and scorned what he called “the empty life of this ugly little charlatan,” saying: ”I think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.” As I said, those demanding that Hitchens not be criticized in death are invoking a warped etiquette standard on his behalf that is not only irrational, but is one he himself vigorously rejected.

Evidently he thinks Hitchens is proving his point, but what Greenwald unwittingly demonstrates is the falseness of his entire premise.  Falwell was much more widely known by the public and also commanded a much greater access to mainstream media venues, especially cable news programs.  If there does indeed exist “etiquette-based prohibitions” and an enforced “protocol” for public figures which bar criticism of them after their deaths, then why was Hitchens able to go onto CNN and say what he said the very day after Falwell died?  The answer of course is that Greenwald’s formulation is a complete fantasy.  And let’s say this much for Hitchens; at least when Falwell died Hitchens was straightforward enough to engage in no-holds-barred public vituperation of him.  The same can be said of the aforementioned Alex Pareene and Michael Lind as well as Alexander Cockburn and others with regard to Hitchens after his death.  Only Greenwald felt the need to rail about nonexistent constraints rather than engage the subject fully and directly.

What motivated Greenwald is purely speculative but interesting nonetheless.  Perhaps he looked out through the narrow view of his twitter window, saw a few flashes and concluded there was a media shower across the entire sky.  Or perhaps a couple of fellow bloggers shook the word “hagiography” under his nose and it acted on him like catnip (yes, maybe that’s why it’s called a buzzword.)  Or perhaps he’s guilty of the same behavior he so easily accuses others of – being slothful.  But one thing is certain, Greenwald’s analysis is inept to the point of embarrassing.

To summarize the media treatment of Reagan’s funeral as the product of “…an unhealthy conflation of appropriate post-death etiquette for private persons and the etiquette governing deaths of public figures.”  and to conclude that “extremely politicized tributes” were “shielded from refutation or balance by the grief of a widow and social mores that bar one from speaking ill of the dead.”  is to misconstrue the forces at work by a proportionality that’s almost dumbfounding.  Reagan’s treatment wasn’t due to social mores or etiquette or taboo or the feelings of a loved one, it was a living, breathing demonstration of political/media hegemony or, more commonly, cultural hegemony.  No one needs to be a Marxist, or to have read Gramsci, to grasp this in our day and age.

And the cultural hegemony with regard to Reagan was solidified long before his death.  These two statements by Greenwald: “That week forever changed how Ronald Reagan — and his conservative ideology — were perceived.” and “Though he became more popular after leaving office (like most Presidents), it was that week-long bombardment of hagiography that sealed Reagan’s status as Great and Cherished Leader.”, have no basis whatsoever in reality.  They are, like almost everything else in this article, unsupported and unsupportable.  Greenwald cites a Gallup poll about Reagan’s polling numbers while he was in office but those numbers aren’t proof of his claim.  Gallup’s retrospective job approval ratings for Reagan show him at 71% approval in February 1999.  He slides down to 66% in February 2000, and then rises to 73% by March of 2002.  Gallup’s next available poll shows Reagan back down to 71% in 2006 (two years after his funeral) and then up to 74% in 2010.  So, unequivocally, it wasn’t the funeral week that “forever changed how Ronald Reagan — and his conservative ideology — were perceived.” , and it wasn’t “that week-long bombardment of hagiography that sealed Reagan’s status as Great and Cherished Leader.”  If we look again at the first graph, we can clearly see what transpired.  In November of 1993 Reagan had a 52% approval rating.  By February 1999 he had a 71% approval rating and since then, as we’ve just seen, his ratings have fluctuated by going down no more than 5 points and up by no more than three.  Obviously the six years between 1993 and 1999 were what “forever changed” how Reagan was perceived.  And even those on the margins of political awareness – let alone a professional pundit – could probably be able to figure out why.  That was the period during which Clinton was besieged by the right with the blessing and active cooperation of the “liberal” media.  That was the period during which the “culture wars” were elevated to primacy in our political universe with the active participation of an establishment media intent on valuing “real Americans” over “elites”.  And all of that was tied together by an active, consciously intended campaign by the GOP to lionize Reagan and make him look, in retrospect, as if he had been the embodiment of cherished American virtues – virtues, they would have us believe, that Clinton lacked and that the country had by then somehow lost.   And it worked, but it took years — not a week.  That week was the expression of the hegemony already fully created, not the cause of it.  It’s an insult that Greenwald tried to pass this off as analysis.  What we don’t need is another pundit, whether from the mainstream media or from the blogosphere, who thinks he can twist history for his own convenience.   In Hitchens’ case Greenwald invented societal forces that didn’t exist.  In Reagan’s case he trivialized the ones that did.  He had to elevate the first and diminish the second in order for both to occupy the same fabricated construct.

This isn’t the first time Greenwald has used that tactic. In his post The Libya War Argument he begins not with Libya but with the Iraq war and the reaction of “war advocates” in 2003 after Baghdad fell to American troops and Saddam Hussein was captured. He states that:

war proponents, given pervasive hatred of Saddam, dared anyone to question the war in the wake of those emotional events and risk appearing to oppose Saddam’s defeat. That tactic succeeded in turning war criticism in the immediate aftermath of those events into a taboo…

It’s undeniable that criticism of the Iraq war was delegitimized and treated with contempt after these two events, but It wasn’t “war proponents” — some faction of society — that celebrated Baghdad’s fall and Saddam’s death and turned criticism into taboo, it was the full power of political/media hegemonic enforcement. Then in order to draw a correlation from that to the Libyan war Greenwald writes:

And now, in the wake of the apparent demise of the Gadaffi regime, we see all sorts of efforts, mostly from Democratic partisans, to exploit the emotions from Gadaffi’s fall to shame those who questioned the war…

And as proof of these “efforts” Greenwald offers…(I’m not making this up)…a tweet from Think Progress and a blog entry from Balloon Juice.

Just as in the Hitchens piece, Greenwald diminishes the actual societal forces at play on one side and invents forces by elevating trivialities on the other side, so that both conform to his narrative. And again as in his Hitchens post, Greenwald, writing from his influential platform over which he has complete editorial control, strikes the pose of victim on whom “demands” are being made even as he spends most of his word count on conflation and inference rather than directly addressing an argument, and even though the oppressive forces he tilts against are little more than other people’s opinion.

I don’t know what motivates Greenwald to engage in this type of rhetoric. But I do know that reason and critical thought don’t rely on inference, unproven assertion and loaded language. And I also know that Greenwald doesn’t illuminate our reality with this kind of work – he concocts his own. Then he stands above it to rail about the elements that he himself has contrived.

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