Friday, June 14, 2013

Gently Begging to Differ with Glenn Greenwald

Ok, so-- I plan to eventually take the hint of my colleague that the much-heralded diversity of subject matter on this blog has yet to materialize, three days in, but since the internet is still all a-twitter (no pun intended) over the NSA leaks I would hate not to get our two cents in before the whole business is consigned to the memory hole of government misconduct.

I'm generally in complete sympathy with Glenn Greenwald's criticisms of the moral flabbiness of liberal commentators on civil liberties issues and in this blog's brief existence I've already contributed to that self-flagellating genre myself.  Nevertheless I must respectfully disagree with him today, or at least ask for clarification, when he writes that:

"The most vocal media critics of our NSA reporting, and the most vehement defenders of NSA surveillance, have been, by far, Democratic (especially Obama-loyal) pundits. As I've written many times, one of the most significant aspects of the Obama legacy has been the transformation of Democrats from pretend-opponents of the Bush War on Terror and National Security State into their biggest proponents: exactly what the CIA presciently and excitedly predicted in 2008 would happen with Obama's election."

Hmmm... I'm not sure this is true, and would be interested to know whom Greenwald has in mind.   In the link in Greenwald's original post, the liberals he was referring to primarily were Joe Klein and Jeff Toobin.  Fair enough.  But when he says "the most vocal" and "the most vehement" critics of Snowden, the names that spring to mind for me are mostly conservative admirers of Obama, such as David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan, as well as certain people who have obvious personal reasons for not wanting our country to develop a culture of accountability for rights violations.  There may be more straightforwardly liberal pundits to add to that list that I simply have not encountered (I'm not a follower of MSNBC or any of the other usual suspects in this regard).  Besides, I'm willing to trust that Glenn Greenwald has followed the media coverage more closely than I have, given that he's at the eye of the storm himself, so if it comes down to a tally of names for and against, it's possible more liberals are in the former camp than I know of.

 However, the heart of the problem does not have to do with the numbers game, but with what we mean when we use terms like "liberal," "progressive," and "Democrat."  When Greenwald uses a phrase like "Democratic (especially Obama-loyal) pundits," he seems to have in mind everyone from (erstwhile?) conservatives like Andrew Sullivan who support Obama's presidency to the staff writers at Mother Jones or The American Prospect.  Who in this faceless catch-all actually deserves Greenwald's criticism?

I could list the names of the liberal writers who I think have done the right thing thus far on the Snowden front and contrast them with the guilty parties Greenwald names, but I think all it would reveal is something that should be obvious: there is a large class of liberal, left-wing, and progressive commentators whose political conscience arose out of some struggle for social betterment or some deep exposure to injustice, and who tend to be skeptical of state power and sympathetic toward the underdog.  Then there is an equally large class of establishment liberals, most of whom have found themselves to be successful in the knowledge economy and tend to have an abiding (if critical) faith in the core institutions of our society, including the market, meritocracy, centralized state power and a strong executive.  This is not to say this latter category is wholly complacent or indifferent to social injustice, but they seem to generally regard flaws in the institutions just named as calling for adjustment and fine-tuning, rather than outright condemnation.

Given these two categories of liberals, which have long coexisted and done battle with one another in American intellectual life, I'm not sure why we should be surprised that the former has tended to harshly condemn the NSA surveillance and the latter has fallen silent or shown outright complicity.  The latter, after all, mostly supported Bush's War on Terror and the Iraq invasion.  There is some question, therefore, as to whether they have even been inconsistent with their earlier views, apart from a very brief period in the late Bush era and the dawning of the Obama presidency when they began to sound like non-interventionists and civil libertarians because the failure in Iraq had given them such a thorough drubbing.  No one should have expected this brief unity of purpose among the two types of liberals to last.  What we are seeing now with the NSA leaks is not the innate moral cowardice of liberalism tout court, but simply the old division reemerging.  I suspect it will widen even more now that the war drums are beating again.

For Greenwald to consistently refuse to make such distinctions between substantively different currents of liberalism is to unnecessarily vilify people who are in more or less total agreement with his acute and perspicuous social criticism.  It is also to strengthen a certain tendency in his writing to portray himself as a lone Cassandra-- ignored by all until it is too late.  This rather self-serving narrative does a grave injustice to Greenwald's fellow toilers in the thankless task of exposing state injustice-- many of whom, if not all, proudly wear the badge of liberalism.

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