October 30, 2013

The Doctrine of Exceptionalism Extends Its Reach

Let's briefly review several critical facts.

If there is a single general theme to Glenn Greenwald's career as a journalist, it is that he constantly confronts and challenges power and those who exercise power, primarily in the political sphere. Greenwald himself has often proclaimed this to be his major concern, and he repeated this conviction in a recent interview: "I came to believe if you’re smart, skilled, and have the resources, you should use those things to fuck with the powerful.”

So challenging power and those individuals who exercise power is a positive good, one of critical significance. Indeed, if you are able to do so, you should "fuck with the powerful."

Pierre Omidyar is a multibillionaire. On Fortune magazine's list of "The World's Billionaires," Omidyar appears as number 123. Fortune describes that article as follows: "The names, numbers and stories behind the 1,426 people who control the world economy." At 123, Omidyar is very high on the list of people who control the world economy.

By any measure, Omidyar is a very powerful man, one of the most powerful in the world.

You may choose to believe Omidyar's own proclamations about his work and goals:
Pierre and Pam Omidyar are active philanthropists engaged in numerous efforts to make the world a better place. Through their work, Pierre and Pam seek to provide opportunities for people to improve their lives, and ignite change across a variety of sectors and geographies. Guided by their belief that people are inherently capable and basically good, Pierre and Pam have committed more than $1 billion to causes ranging from entrepreneurship to human rights to chronic illness in children.
You may view this as noble and admirable. Or, perhaps, you may be struck by its insufferable pomposity and condescension. (I admit that I tend toward the latter view and paraphrased that remarkable paragraph to a friend as follows: "A multibillionaire who pats the rest of humanity on the head, and says: 'There, there, now. I realize you're poor, and sick, and have a shitty life -- but you're good too! I sincerely believe that! You're good! And you can do ... well, something. Cheer up you poor, sick person with a shitty life! I'm here to help you!'")

But if we seek to analyze power, especially power on a vast scale, in a serious manner -- as Greenwald the journalist would surely have us do -- whether we believe in Omidyar's (or anyone's) nobility is entirely beside the point. The question is: Is it good for anyone at all to have this degree of power? There are additional questions: How does an individual acquire this much wealth and power? Even if his intentions are impossibly pure today, what happens if they change tomorrow? And there are many more related questions. I once remarked: "A government that has the power to save you also has the power to kill you." The same is true of individuals.

This is the man with whom Greenwald has now formed an alliance. This is the man who says he wants to fund journalism which will systematically challenge the powerful. That challenge is Greenwald's calling card as a journalist, and it is the trait that Greenwald and Omidyar tell us they seek to encourage and strengthen by means of their other hires. As the result of his alliance with Omidyar, Greenwald himself is rapidly becoming a man of notable wealth -- and power.

If we apply Greenwald's own methodology to his new venture -- if, that is, we utilize the methodology which Greenwald tells us has brought him to the point where Omidyar finds it valuable and in his self-interest to go into business with him -- aren't we required to ask the questions Greenwald asks of all those who exercise power on a significant scale, but now ask those questions about Greenwald and Omidyar?

Shouldn't we wonder if Omidyar has connections to companies that are directly implicated in the Snowden revelations -- for example, Booz Allen? Shouldn't we inquire as to whether such connections may affect future stories about surveillance? Isn't it possible, perhaps even likely, that major conflicts of interest will arise? That companies to which Omidyar is connected in complex, non-obvious ways might not wish certain of their activities to be revealed? I would suggest these represent only the beginning of the questions that should occur to us.

If we wish to analyze the operations of power critically, we should adopt the approach that Greenwald repeatedly insists is the keystone to his work. Yet it appears that this is the one thing we must not do under any circumstances. Or, rather, we must not use Greenwald's own methodology now, in these particular circumstances, since Greenwald himself would be subjected to the kind of questioning to which he subjects everyone else.

This is not a new story; it is the oldest story in the world. Beware the moralist -- and Greenwald is, among other things, most certainly a moralist -- who champions a standard for judging others, and who often applies that standard with merciless severity, but who exempts himself from that same standard. The same is true for many of Greenwald's most fervent defenders: questions, and judgments, that they direct at many others are on permanent sabbatical as far as Greenwald and Omidyar are concerned.

I am not primarily concerned with particular conclusions we might consider justified at this early stage (although I have certainly indicated a few conclusions of my own, based on what I consider to be strong arguments). I'm most concerned with method -- and the method at issue is the one forcefully advocated by Greenwald himself over the course of a number of years.

But with very rare exceptions, none of Greenwald's admirers will entertain the indicated questions with even a modicum of seriousness. I see this in the reaction to my own posts on these matters: for the most part, my articles have been entirely ignored, even by those who often link and discuss my posts on other subjects. And I see the same reaction to others who cast a critical gaze on the Greenwald-Omidyar alliance. Is that what the pre-Omidyar Greenwald would counsel his current defenders to do? When confronted by a new venture which is the very embodiment of wealth and power, would pre-Omidyar Greenwald tell people to emulate the monkeys who decline to hear, see or speak of possibly discomfiting matters?

In discussing Greenwald's ascension of the ladder of power and fame, I have remarked on the parade of awful ironies that now greet us daily. To the ironies I have already identified, we can add one more. Greenwald has written extensively about the endlessly destructive results of the doctrine of American exceptionalism. That doctrine instructs us that the United States government is entitled to pass judgment on the actions of every other nation in the world. When the U.S. ruling class is displeased, it is further entitled to mete out that punishment it deems appropriate in its sole discretion. There is no appeal from the court of the U.S. ruling class. Its judgment is final. (I have analyzed this noxious doctrine at length: "The Blood-Drenched Darkness of American Exceptionalism.")

American exceptionalism imparts another "truth": when the United States government acts in ways that our ruling class utterly condemns when pursued by others, that too is completely acceptable, and even admirable, for the U.S., but only for the U.S. The standards that the U.S. applies to everyone else are never to be applied to the U.S. itself, except on those extremely rare occasions when the United States charitably grants leave to do so (which is almost always when the exercise has ceased to have any meaning).

Greenwald has repeatedly and heatedly condemned the nature and operations of this doctrine. But now a doctrine identical in its premises and meaning has arisen in a very different context. Call it the Doctrine of Greenwald Exceptionalism.

Forget everything you knew. Abandon all the principles you championed. Set aside all the questions and critiques that would occur to you in an instant if anyone other than Greenwald were involved. It's always the first surrender that is the hardest. Get past that, and you're on your way. Bask in the praise that will be yours. Perhaps you'll even get a job offer. They are actively hiring, after all.

If you have ever wondered why power wins so easily, you have no excuse for wondering any longer. Everyone loves a winner. Power is safety, power is comfort, power is life.

You should remember, and I mean this only figuratively (for the moment): power is also death.

The entire spectacle is disgusting.