January 05, 2014


[For much more on these issues, from a broader perspective and in a more serious vein, if you will, see this followup essay: "Tone" Is the Tool of the Oppressor.]

Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Something appealing,
Something appalling,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!

Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns;
Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!

Old situations,
New complications,
Nothing portentous or polite;
Tragedy tomorrow,
Comedy tonight! -- Stephen Sondheim, "Comedy Tonight," A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
I am confident in predicting that, in significant part, 2014 will be The Year of Comedy. It's going to be a goddamn laff riot.

I recently read an article -- one which its author explicitly and painfully self-consciously intends to be super serious, man -- which, in its opening paragraphs, describes the targets of certain of its criticisms in the following terms:

-- "useless" and "moronic"

-- "dragging ... people through the mud"

-- "drowning everything in the noise of acrimony and belligerence"

-- "devolving into crude infighting"

-- "shameful, juvenile, and counter-productive"

Can we agree that such descriptions are, like, not nice? The writer indisputably believes his targets to be stupid, destructive and generally rotten.

Imagine my slack-jawed amazement when, in the midst of this cacophony of calumny, the writer insists -- dude, this is one of his major themes! -- that "tone is important, both for maintaining crucial solidarity within the larger resistance and for disciplining our own thinking against irrational laziness." Oopsie, sorry for my omission: his targets are guilty of "irrational laziness," too. Also not nice!

He really means this stuff about "tone," for he goes on to say: "We are learning lessons and hashing out disputes that will guide future whistleblowers, journalists, and activists for decades to come, and that elevates both criticism and civility as dual imperatives in ensuring a productive debate."

Ah, "civility." Well, maybe not so much for those who are "moronic," "belligerent," "shameful," "juvenile," "lazy" and generally rotten.

This is fucking grade-A comedy gold. I will pause until your helpless laughter subsides sufficiently so that your tears of merriment no longer make it impossible to apprehend the page before you.

I've been blogging for more than ten years, and I tell you this. Calls for "civility" and the proper "tone" surface with deadening regularity at all points of the political spectrum. In every case, without exception, those who demand "civility" are liars of the first order. (How else can you describe someone who levels multiple, damning insults while simultaneously insisting that everyone speak in the hushed, pinched tones of Emily Post with ten extra rods shoved up her ass?) In every case, without exception, they are pursuing aims which they do not choose to disclose, and an agenda which they decline to identify. That is: they're trying to get away with something, and they hope you won't notice.

Whenever I hear the calls for "civility," I think of certain celebrated writers and wonder how they would fare if we applied such a standard. What would we make of statements such as these?

*** Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

*** The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out ... without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, intolerable.

*** Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.

*** We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

*** God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos; He will set them above their betters.

*** The only good bureaucrat is one with a pistol at his head. Put it in his hand and it's good-bye to the Bill of Rights.

And how we would judge observations of this kind?

*** If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be -- a Christian.

*** You believe in a book that has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, burning bushes, food falling from the sky, people walking on water, and all sorts of magical, absurd and primitive stories, and you say that we are the ones that need help?

*** All Congresses and Parliaments have a kindly feeling for idiots, and a compassion for them, on account of personal experience and heredity.

*** The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.

*** Look at the tyranny of party -- at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty -- a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes -- and which turns voters into chattles, slaves, rabbits, and all the while their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.

You probably know that the first group of comments are from Mencken, and the second from Twain. "Civil" is not the first word that comes to mind. Colorful, wickedly clever, sinfully delightful would be fully appropriate. (I also note that this sampling but barely provides an indication of the riches offered by these writers, or the lacerating, uncivil wit of which they were capable. See here, here and here for much more.)

I will now provide the link to the article that so amused me: here it is. The title is: "An anarchist critique of the reporting on the Snowden leaks." The author is one "Jeremy Weiland." I put the name in quotes because, despite my atheism, I fervently pray that it is not the writer's real name. I would never willingly identify someone as the creator of such a soggy pile of leached, grayish pulp, often self-contradictory, sometimes unintelligible, unrelievedly dull. My reluctance is the direct result of my unfailingly charitable and generous nature. Similarly, I am eternally "civil," just as my "tone" is unassailably superb. Fuck's sake.

You may think that my providing the link to the article in question -- that is, the article I happen to be writing about -- isn't a big deal. That's what writers do all the time on the internet, right? We provide links to the subjects of our analyses, so that you can see what the hell we're talking about. But that's a curious thing about Weiland's piece: despite the litany of insults, he never identifies the targets of his condemnation. He never offers even one link to an example of the approach he so deeply detests. However, "Weiland" identifies himself as an "anarchist," and in anarchist circles (and, until very recently, even outside those circles) there have been only two writers who have offered systematic, detailed criticisms of the manner in which the Snowden leaks have been published. Those writers are Tarzie (here's his most recent post, and he provides links to others in his series), and me. (Here's my most recent article, and see here, here and here as well, and links will take you to still more.) Internal clues also make clear that Tarzie and I are Weiland's primary targets, the most obvious being Weiland's reference to "rancid denunciations."

A writer's refusal to link to the target of his own "denunciations" is another sign that he's trying to get away with something. When a link is provided, the reader can judge for herself whether the writer's description and judgment are accurate. Whatever else might be said of Tarzie's and my posts on this subject (good or bad), the numerous articles we've published are thick with substantive argument. Unless the reader of Weiland's piece brings independent knowledge of our writing on this subject, she will have no way of knowing that.

We also know that Tarzie and I are Weiland's primary targets thanks to several recent tweets. In one exchange, Weiland first claimed that his criticisms were general in nature, not tied to specific individuals:
@ohtarzie2 My post attacks behaviors & attitudes, naming nobody outright. If it doesn't describe you, why are you defending it? Exactly.
But just a few tweets later, Weiland says:
@ohtarzie2 I certainly won't deny that I referenced certain of your behaviors. But it's not a personal denunciation. Silber draws my ire too
Beyond this (finally) being an acknowledgment of his actual targets, the comment doesn't even make sense (a problem also present in the article itself, as we shall see). It's "not a personal denunciation" -- because it references "behaviors & attitudes" of more than just one person? What? It's entirely irrelevant whether he's referring to one person or 50: to the extent he denounces certain "behaviors & attitudes" exhibited by certain individuals, he is denouncing those persons with regard to those "behaviors & attitudes." Are we actually at the point where ideas of such numbing simplicity and obviousness must be explained? I feel as if I'm being forced to explain first-grade arithmetic to a pet rock.

Weiland goes on to declare that he really, really doesn't like me:
@ohtarzie2 I have loathed Silber's tone since the moment I discovered him. I love his writing on Alice Miller's thinking, but that's it.
@rancidsassy I read enough. I have a personal, irrational aversion to [Silber's] writing. I can't usually finish any of his pieces.
I dunno, "Weiland." I'm not feeling the "solidarity." And where oh where has "civility" flown? Or do we have two entirely different standards for articles and tweets?

And that's one of the dirty secrets about those who clamor for "civility" and insist on the importance of "tone." What they actually mean is that those whose "behaviors & attitudes" they approve -- or those whose favor they curry and/or whose power they fear -- will be invited for afternoon tea, when they will daintily sip their beverage with crooked pinky. Everyone else, and especially those of whom they strongly disapprove, will be heaved in the gutter with the other slop. So much for "civility" and "solidarity."

I find Weiland's statement that he "can't usually finish any of [my] pieces" mildly intriguing. As a preliminary matter, I note that it is curious indeed to launch a lengthy series of insults at a writer, only to acknowledge that you read the particular articles in question only selectively and sporadically. I suggest that you may have missed something. By contrast, before I began writing this piece (and a future one, which will deal with several substantive points concerning Greenwald & Co.'s leak methodology and Weiland's treatment of same), I read Weiland's article (both the original and the revised versions) several times. Yes, I am masochistically conscientious when it comes to my writing. But, then, I prefer to know what I'm talking about.

And slogging through Weiland's turgid prose is not a happy business (or a hygienic one, for that matter). For example, these two sentences:
Now, neither Snowden, Poitras, nor Greenwald are anarchists, so it surprises me not at all that they'd strike a very different balance on national security than I would. Berating them over this is particularly unhelpful, not least because it reinforces any elitist notion that the public at large is too immature or reckless to handle this information.
I've read and reread this, and I still have no idea what it means. How does the clause beginning "not least" follow from the preceding statements? Criticizing Greenwald & Co. for their highly restricted publication of the leaks is a crucially important point. How does criticizing them for their approach "reinforce any elitist notion..." etc.? To the contrary, arguing for much more complete and widespread dissemination of the leaks is directly opposed to the idea that "the public at large is too immature or reckless to handle this information." My argument has always been that the public is fully capable of handling all the data, even "raw" data, and, moreover, that the public is entitled to have it. Beyond this, it is critical to point out the grievous defects of the Greenwald approach because of its consequences. It is immaterial whether we can "expect" better or different behavior from them, particularly when many people don't seem to grasp fully the implications and results of this method of leaking. The nature of Greenwald's methodology and its likely results are of singular importance. I have always been focused on the methodology involved (and in my very first post on the Snowden leaks from last June, I contrasted the Greenwald methodology to that of WikiLeaks precisely because the question of methodology is so central) -- but it is Weiland who seeks to reduce these arguments to questions of personality, by the use of terms such as "berating."

Even though Weiland says that he "can't usually finish any of [my] pieces," I suspect he's read a fair amount of my writing on this subject. Some of his arguments -- interestingly, the ones that are comprehensible and with which I agree -- have a very familiar ring to them. From Weiland:
Moreover, I can't help but regard Greenwald's arguments for the urgency of mediation here as inherently elitist; the idea that we, the public, must be guided or conditioned by the "drip" strategy of reporting on the leaks seems almost insulting. If this debate is so important, why does it require so much guidance, especially from one faction of one class in society? If we the people cannot be trusted to react to these disclosures in the "proper" manner, why bother with reporting at all? Ultimately, as noble as I think Greenwald, Poitras, et al's ends are, I can't help but find this reasoning a bit hypocritical.
From my second article on the leaks, published on June 12:
I will also state frankly, again with regard to the similar justifications offered by both these journalists and the government, that there is a very strong element of elitism involved that I find objectionable in the extreme. In the case of the Guardian, we know that Greenwald and at least two other reporters had access to Snowden's documents (or at least parts of them). We can safely assume that at least one editor was also involved, and probably more than one given the "sensitivity" of the material and the attention they knew the stories would receive. We can also safely assume, as Greenwald does, that "the Guardian has consulted lawyers about all of this." How many lawyers? We don't know. I have some familiarity with matters of this kind, and I think we can say it's at least two or three, and possibly five or six (given the importance of this material and the stories based on it). So how many people are we talking about? Eight, 10, 15, 20? Almost certainly between 10 and 20, at a minimum. That's just at the Guardian. The same would be true at the Washington Post. So we're talking about 40 or 50 individuals, possibly more, who reviewed Snowden's documents or at least some of them. I'm probably undercounting.

On top of this, we've all seen the stories about how the government hands out clearances to classified and "Top Secret" information like candy. But now we're told that all those very special workers for the State, plus the 40 or 50 people (and probably more) at the Guardian and the Washington Post, well, they're so responsible, and conscientious, and impossibly pure that they can be trusted with information that apparently will cause the simultaneous implosion of numerous galaxies if it were to fall into the hands of irresponsible, criminally careless, and stupid people -- like you. Like me.
A week later, I returned to that theme:
In an earlier post about the NSA/surveillance stories, I discussed the profoundly offensive elitism involved in the argument that "special" people in both government and journalism, people endowed with understanding and judgment that is the envy of the gods and forever denied to all us ordinary schlubs, should decide what information will be provided to the motley mass of humans who merely pay for all of it, and for whose benefit all this godlike work is supposedly undertaken. Talk about idiocies: "We're doing all this for you! You're too stupid to be told most of what we're doing!" Put it on a bumper sticker, baby, so we can throw rotten eggs at it.
My "tone" may be unspeakably rude, even barbaric -- but my point and Weiland's are exactly the same. (I have frequently returned to this issue in my articles; if you follow the links provided above, you'll find those discussions. Sometimes, I even manage to hold my barbarism in check.)

Or consider this, from Weiland:
Journalistic mediation of source materials is not supposed to restrict access to the source facts themselves; that's not it's [sic] intent. Journalism is supposed to add clarity and understanding to the facts but not exercise total access control over them. Remember when Greenwald calling out [sic] Dina Temple-Raston for reporting national security stories based on materials only she was allowed to see? This is not the same situation, but it has a similar feel to it, because we're just supposed to trust the journalist without verifying it.
This is a theme I have discussed repeatedly, most recently on December 3:
Since it seems that, at most, a very, very small percentage of the Snowden documents will ultimately be made public, we are entitled to know why 98%, or 90%, or 50%, of the documents will never be made public. What percentage of the documents name names, and would therefore supposedly endanger "innocent" people? Can't the names be omitted, and the redacted documents then published? Which percentage might endanger "national security"? How are these journalists determining what endangers "national security" (or what "national security" is?) or how much "danger" is permissible, if any? Is there some percentage of the documents that the journalists have determined to be not "newsworthy"? How is that determination made? What are the factors involved? As I noted in one of my earliest posts about this, we are offered only vacuous phrases devoid of specific content when it comes to the reasons for non-disclosure. In fact, we have no specific idea how any of these judgments are being made. Thus, we are reduced to the identical posture with regard to both the State(s) and the "dissenting" journalists: we just have to trust them.
There are several additional examples of passages from Weiland that sound very familiar, but you get the idea. (In fact, much of the analysis in the immediately preceding excerpt of mine is echoed in Weiland's discussion of how wider dissemination of the leaks would be possible.) Yes, of course it is possible that writers can independently arrive at very similar ideas, and even similar means of expression. But as the similarities increase in number, certain possibilities are suggested.

I mention my earlier discussions of these points for another reason. Greenwald has now chimed in on Weiland's discussion:
@jeremy6d Your post was super thoughtful and, I believe, the first to address those questions. I hope to respond more at length.
"Super thoughtful." (I'm delighted to see we're all super literate.) And Weiland's post is "I believe, the first to address those questions." In his typical fashion, Greenwald leaves himself an out for this claim, two outs actually: "I believe," and "those questions." All of Weiland's major arguments (at least, the major arguments that are correct; there are some other arguments that are wrong and/or largely irrelevant, but I'll get to those another time) are ones that I've discussed at length, usually on multiple occasions. But Greenwald can claim "those questions" refers to some (minor and/or irrelevant) issues that I've never addressed. And he can claim he never read any of my posts (which I strongly doubt, since I know a number of people sent him links to many of my articles).

But we know that Greenwald has read (or at least skimmed) a couple of Tarzie's articles. We know that, because Greenwald commented on them: here, which is a comment to this post, and here (where Greenwald throws "civility" out the window, along with reason, logic and facts). In his posts, Tarzie discussed many of these same issues as well. But it's hardly surprising that Greenwald should feel favorably disposed to tweeting sweet nothings at Weiland: if someone burbled and gurgled about my "noble" ends, my "heroic acts," and how much he respects the general wondrousness of my person and work, I might want to give him a momentary nuzzle. And Weiland provides one further benefit to Greenwald: by failing to offer even a single link to one of Greenwald's loathsome, barbaric, deeply uncivilized critics, he seeks to erase those critics from this discussion going forward. And, it appears, that is a benefit Greenwald seized upon: "those questions" are now addressed for the first time.

Sad to say, anarchists (and those who call themselves "anarchists") are people, too. Social climbing, the cultivation of those in positions of power and influence, and career maintenance are hardly unknown among anti-Statists. Scratch my back, and I'll ... well, you know how it goes.

Also sad to say, there are a few other issues about this business I still want to address. But I may write about some other subjects before I get to that. At the moment, I feel as if I need to take several scaldingly hot showers.

UPDATE: See "Tone" Is the Tool of the Oppressor, for much more on the broader issues involved.