Tired of the Lecturing Left: A Message to Glenn Greenwald

By Ben Cohen: Yesterday, I blogged about Salon.com’s featured writer Glenn Greenwald and called him out for an incredibly smug post about Raw Story. The post kicked off a bit of a twitter storm with quite a few people re-tweeting the article. It seems I hit a bit of a nerve, no doubt because Greenwald isn’t particularly popular in many Left wing circles. I’d like to expand a little on the point of my post – not to continue bashing Greenwald, but to explain a wider point that I think is highly relevant when it comes to having political discourse.

I want to repeat that I do have a lot of respect for Greenwald and rate him highly as a writer. He does important work and should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in understanding the facts about US government policy. Generally speaking, I think Greenwald is usually correct in his analysis of current affairs – his work is thorough and well substantiated and it’s often hard to find disagreement with his logic.

However, there is a common theme when reading writers like Greenwald – it is that they have come to believe so strongly in their own perception of reality that there is no longer room for debate. Greenwald enters every discussion knowing that he is right, and everyone else either doesn’t get it, or is flat out wrong.

While Greenwald’s voice is important, he becomes completely pointless after while because people start to tune out. While Greenwald would argue that it doesn’t stop him from being right (after all, facts are facts) it does mean that his work no longer has any tangible impact. Chez Pazienza has spent quite a bit of time rebutting Greenwald for his militancy, and I think he makes the point most astutely:

When I shrug off the often shrill and selfish criticism of Greenwald — and it is selfish in the sense that, like it or not, it risks the greater good in the pursuit of perfection that he seems to demand on his personal pet issues — it’s because I don’t feel that there’s any real sense of conscience behind it. I’ve actually come around on the idea that Greenwald isn’t simply interested in getting people to pay attention to him — although I do believe he enjoys being able to think of himself a thorn in the side of the world — and I now accept that he genuinely seeks to adhere to a very strict laundry list of political issues because he considers those issues important above all. The problem is, and always has been, that he’ll sacrifice everything else — burn down the whole village if he has to — just to get his way on them.

The mainstream Left in America is an imperfect union of divided interests, corruption and some good intention. The Democratic Party has been subverted by corporate interests, and the liberal media is a reflection of that. By virtue of his job, President Obama is the figurehead of all of this, and presides over the future direction of the country. Glenn Greenwald devotes post after post, day after day, week after week attacking Obama, the Democrats and the liberal media for their misdeeds, never skipping a beat or missing an opportunity to rake the Left over the coals. Which is fine – a journalists job should be to hold power to account, and the media in America generally fails to do that. For that, Greenwald can give himself a pat on the back.

But the world is a complicated place, and changing it for the better is an extremely messy process. I know many people in the mainstream media and in government, all of whom I’d classify as decent people trying to make a change. The understand the system they are a part of, and largely do their jobs to the best of their ability given the constraints they are under. For people like Greenwald, this is never good enough – if people don’t adhere to his own strict guidelines, they can be dismissed as irrelevant. Greenwald scathing attack and arrogant dismissal of Raw Story is a classic example of this, and underlines his inability to see his own faults.  The problem is, if everyone took Greenwald’s attitude, nothing would ever change. Yes, President Obama has failed to live up to his promises, and yes he has been co-opted by the same power interests as every other President in history. Yes the media is subservient to corporate interests and political power, but that doesn’t mean Obama or these media outlets aren’t sometimes doing good work and having a positive effect. As Pazienza writes:

It’s easy to say that a sacrifice needs to be made to ostensibly teach a political party a lesson when you’re not living in the country — which Greenwald isn’t, by the way — that will look fundamentally different, and monumentally worse, in short order should the party that benefits from your act of insurrection come to power.

Glenn Greenwald isn’t the one who would be doing the sacrificing here. The whole debate for him is strictly academic. And that’s the problem.

There’s a great story in the remarkable documentary ”The Power of Nightmares’ on the rise of Al Qaeda and the Neo Cons about a sect of militant Islam in Algeria, the G.I.A (Armed Islamic Group) that was so extreme that members were killed for not conforming to the perfect ideal of a Muslim. The sect got smaller and smaller as members were killed off:

The main Islamist group in Algeria, the GIA, ended up being led by a Mr. Zouabri, a chicken farmer, who killed everyone who disagreed with him. He issued a final communique, declaring that the whole of Algerian society should be killed, with the exception of his tiny remaining band of Islamists. They were the only ones who understood the truth.

Greenwald has appointed himself the sole arbiter of the truth, and decides on his blog who is worthy and who is not. I’m not arguing that Greenwald should stop doing what he does – I’m asking him to change his tone. I’m asking him to engage with the other people rather than lecture them, and entertain the shocking notion that he could sometimes be wrong. Maybe then his work would reach people who could actually instigate some of the changes he fights so hard for.

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