October 14, 2013

When Whistleblowing Is Obedience and Tribute to the State

Glenn Greenwald opens his latest column for The Guardian with this: "Like many people, I've spent years writing and speaking about the lethal power-subservient pathologies plaguing establishment journalism in the west." He goes on to discuss an article by Chris Blackhurst, a career journalist who had been the editor of The Independent until a few months ago. Greenwald sets forth the headline for Blackhurst's piece: "Edward Snowden's secrets may be dangerous. I would not have published them. If MI5 warns that this is not in the public interest who am I to disbelieve them?" Then Greenwald writes:
In other words, if the government tells me I shouldn't publish something, who am I as a journalist to disobey? Put that on the tombstone of western establishment journalism. It perfectly encapsulates the death spiral of large journalistic outlets.
Four months ago, when the NSA-surveillance stories had just begun to be published, I wrote a piece setting forth my strenuous objections to the methodology employed by Greenwald (and by the other journalists involved): "Fed Up with All the Bullshit." At the outset of my article, I noted Greenwald's explanation for that methodology:
“We’re not engaged in a mindless, indiscriminate document dump, and our source didn’t want us to be,” said Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian writer, in an email to BuzzFeed Saturday. “We’re engaged in the standard journalistic assessment of whether the public value to publication outweighs any harms." ...

“We’re applying the standard judgment test that journalists apply every day: first, is it newsworthy and relevant, ie, is there public interest in knowing this?” Greenwald told BuzzFeed. “If so: is there genuine harm that comes from publication? And if there is harm, does the public value outweigh/justify the harm?"
In "Fed Up with All the Bullshit" and in an earlier post I "discussed what ought to be a disturbing similarity between the justifications for concealment employed by Snowden's chosen journalists and the State's justifications for keeping massive amounts of information from the public. In both cases, the 'authorities' rely on factors and standards that are never specifically defined, on the basis of which they engage in some kind of unexplained 'weighing' process, all to decide whether to reveal or conceal the information in question."

What has transpired in the four months since I wrote that compels the following conclusion: Greenwald, together with the other journalists to whom he has granted access to the Snowden documents and who abide by his ground rules, is engaged in precisely the same exercise of power that the State employs. Yet Greenwald continues to vehemently condemn the State's exercise of such power, just as he condemns those who obey the State's edicts, while he and his enthusiastic fans view his identical exercise of power in glowing terms, offering endless praise for the "bravery," "courage" and "independence" demonstrated by those who bring us these carefully selected, sanitized, edited, and redacted tidbits from the documentation of the State's actions and crimes.

It thus appears that what is alarming, and even heinous, when committed by the State mysteriously becomes imbued with profound nobility of spirit and boundless courage when committed by self-selected individuals. The modes of behavior in both cases are identical; the sole difference lies in the identities of the actors involved. I could point to historical examples of "revolutionaries" who prove to be far bloodier and more destructive than the "authorities" they replace once the revolutionaries themselves accede to power. That is far from a minor point, and it underscores the great danger of endorsing the exercise of power if only it is utilized by those of whom one "approves." That, in turn, highlights the nature of my objection, which is to the exercise of power itself in this manner. Or, as I put it in the earlier post: "Bullshit, all of it. These are the dishonest, insulting arguments of power used to justify itself. To hell with it."

Some questioning of Greenwald & Co.'s methods is now being offered, but not nearly enough. The endless plaudits continually offered to Greenwald & Co. serve to emphasize a point I've argued for years, although we hardly needed further evidence for the proposition: most people do not object to power itself. Most people are enormously comfortable with power, and they are more than happy to obey the dictates of those in positions of authority. Their only requirement is that power be exercised by those they approve and view favorably. It should not be necessary to state explicitly a logically compelled further point. But, since the minds of so many "dissenters" and "radicals" seem to be on extended vacation, it is advisable to set it out: You cannot successfully challenge an enemy by adopting his methods. When you adopt the enemy's methods, you no longer challenge him: you become him. (This is a variant of a principle I identified long ago: "When you argue within the framework and using the terms selected by your opponent, you will always lose in the end. Even if you make a stronger case about one particular issue, your opponent still wins the larger battle -- because you have permitted the underlying assumptions and the general perspective to remain unchallenged.")

In Greenwald's case, the horrifying ironies parade before us in endless procession. For years, Greenwald has furiously railed against authoritarians and their followers, and against the unchallenged exercise of power. Yet in the last month or so, whenever Greenwald himself is seriously challenged -- and when he deigns to reply -- he exhibits all the traits of those he has mercilessly condemned. As I wrote to a friend just yesterday: "I was never certain what [Greenwald] genuinely believed, as distinct from what he said he believed for marketing purposes. Since he himself is now openly the overbearing, pretentious, condescending, bullying, authoritarian shithead he always condemned, it rather puts his entire public persona in question."

There's some plain speaking for you. I offer it in large part because I'm sick to death of the fawning, unquestioning adulation being offered in place of analysis. I also offer it because it's true. Is anyone capable of thinking about the NSA stories and the way in which they are being offered in a serious, critical manner?

Tarzie is: see here, here and here, and follow the links for much more. As further evidence for my harsh judgment, I also direct you to several Greenwald tweets. I'm not on Twitter myself and have no plans to be. But I occasionally follow a few discussions that I find of interest. Here's one Greenwald tweet in response to questioning: "Which specific documents should be released that haven't been? Are there any?" If you read the subsequent tweets (at the same link), you'll read this from Greenwald: "So if you can't even say that there's been a single doc we improperly withheld, what's your criticism?" This is idiotically nonsensical. Moreover, Greenwald himself has to know it's idiotically nonsensical. How on earth can an outsider identify "specific documents" that "should be released," when no outsider has any idea what Snowden turned over? Greenwald has repeatedly made clear what he thinks of this kind of argument when it is offered by others. For example: "You can't prove that Iraq doesn't have WMD, so ... WAR!!!" Or: "You can't prove that Iran won't have nuclear weapons at some point and/or be a threat to the U.S. for some unspecified reason, so ... WAR!!!" Greenwald is the one with unfettered access to the documents, and he's the one who will not explain his method for releasing them (or, for the most part, not releasing them) except in the vaguest, ultimately meaningless terms. But somehow it is the questioner's fault for being unable to identify what is inherently impossible for him to identify.

Or try this tweet: "There are some people for whom a sense of failure is a vital part of their worldview & need it." According to Greenwald, if we fail to acknowledge and offer appropriate gratitude for his changing the world, it's because of a character or psychological failure on our part. He resorts to this tactic with distressing regularity; for his efforts, Tarzie was rewarded with a veritable bouquet of psychological and characterological abnormalities. Moreover -- and this is the far more important point -- Greenwald isn't changing the world. (Obviously, you must take that with many grains of salt; it's only my overpowering feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, and utter intellectual impotence that make me entertain such revolting ideas.)

Here's still another Greenwald tweet: "Despite the lies of some, I never once - never - said that a single doc was withheld because of 'national security'" But as a followup tweet from his questioner makes clear, "national security" was used merely to summarize one of Greenwald's deliberately vague and non-specific grounds for continuing to withhold documents (as, not coincidentally, the State prefers). And it is Greenwald who first introduced the notion of "harm" into the formula for determining which documents to release or withhold, and it is Greenwald who talks of not wanting to identify "covert agents" and the like. What is all that, if not "national security"? Ah, but it's "national security" as determined by Greenwald, and not by the State -- so that's okey dokey. And, through a secret alchemical process, "national security" isn't "national security" when Greenwald references questions of "national security," at least in this particular context. (This is another tactic Greenwald favors: unequivocally stating that "A is terrible," and then, when questioned several minutes or a day later, emphatically declaring: "I never said A is terrible! You completely misunderstood me!" Or even: "You're lying!" All of which calls to mind:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - - that's all."
Remember: we're talking about power.)

And on and on it goes. And all this is from one exchange that I happened to see; I've read enough references to similar Twitter conversations and other exchanges to know that Greenwald "argues" in this manner very frequently whenever his methods are challenged. The "arguments" that he offers are all ones that Greenwald has ridiculed and criticized at length when they were offered by others. One of the lessons we can draw is the uniformity of the intellectual corruptions that occur when anyone is placed in a position of power -- and when he seeks to protect that power, and when he enjoys its exercise. We should note that these kinds of responses to serious questioning are those of someone who can be described as an authoritarian bully (among other terms). As I said, the ironies are numerous, and awful.

And there can be no doubt that Greenwald is enjoying his power over the dissemination of the Snowden documents, and that he keenly appreciates the many values that power confers on him. Not least of those values are the marketing advantages that he seeks to exploit. And that's what a lot of this is about: marketing. This is already longer than I had anticipated, so I'll discuss the marketing aspects next time.