The fight over who was right in the wake of last week's big NSA data-mining disclosure, the Obama Administration or Snowden and Greenwald, was over before it even started. Let me explain by way of a recent piece in Salon, written by Andrew O'Hehir, that detailed the bizarre public battle being played out between documentary director Alex Gibney and left-wing journalist Chris Hedges. It concerns Gibney's new movie, "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks," which details the rise of the notorious secret-sharing site Wikileaks and its equally notorious founder Julian Assange. Gibney directed the harrowing Oscar-winning documentary "Taxi To the Dark Side," about a doomed Afghan cab driver's very unfortunate run-in with the Bush-Cheney-era torture policy, so you'd think he had a good amount of street cred with the institutional left. Not enough, though, apparently, to protect him from being excoriated when it believes he's stepping out of line with accepted orthodoxy. In "We Steal Secrets," Gibney is sympathetic but still tough on Assange and his creation -- too tough, it seems, for Hedges, who two weeks ago wrote a scathing piece in TruthDig calling the film "agitprop for the security and surveillance state." O'Hehir's take on Hedges's unnecessarily blistering attack on Gibney and his movie, seemingly for the crime of not being deferential enough to Assange's supposedly well-established status as a demi-god, is terrifically insightful.
"There’s a powerful strain of left-wing thought that insists we need heroes in order not to lose our idealism. I would speculate that for Hedges it’s worth sacrificing Gibney and his film to uphold the avatar of Julian Assange for a generation of young hackers and activists. In his article, Hedges compares (Bradley) Manning and Assange to Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon (and even, later on, to Martin Luther King Jr.). That seems a painful stretch. More to the point, none of those people would have stood for accusing someone who is not your real enemy of being a traitor, a scoundrel and a turncoat for telling the wrong kind of story."
Not only does O'Hehir nail it with this assessment, he goes a long way in explaining the reason why political disagreements in general in the year 2013 will almost never be objectively decided or even considered: hero worship. It's not only the left that does it; it's all of us. We create and then rally behind those we happen to agree with and will generally defend them against all comers, convinced that what we're doing is contributing to the greater good. While I certainly don't want to succumb to the dreaded "both sides do it" meme, well, yeah, both sides do it. Conservatives notoriously gather in lockstep behind the people and issues they deify and hold true and, despite a few recent hiccups, rarely break ranks; liberals, particularly the far-left, which suffers from the worst kind of persecution complex, also choose their totems and then guard them at all costs in the name of preserving the sanctity of their value to the overall movement. What's interesting about the institutional left, though, is that, since it prides itself on intellectual honesty and a strict adherence to thorough analysis, it actually manages to convince itself that what it's doing isn't mindless hero worship and is instead something far more noble. Despite Andrew O'Hehir's willingness to come right out and admit reality, many on the left truly believe they're immune to confirmation bias. That kind of ignorance is for the less-enlightened beings on the other side, they say.
Case in point: For the past week-and-a-half, the story told by Edward Snowden to Glenn Greenwald has slowly and assuredly been chipped away at by journalists asking very legitimate questions and pointing out very legitimate problems with it. Right off the bat, Greenwald undoubtedly engaged in his own form of hero worship in his initial reporting on Snowden's disclosure and it seems to have tainted his commitment to objective reality and the pursuit of the truth in all its occasional ugliness and ambiguity. This may seem like an ad hominem attack but believe me it's not. As I said last week, it's simply asking that people consider the source when looking at Greenwald's reporting on a story that just happens to confirm every single one of his firmly held and relentlessly espoused biases. I guarantee you that Snowden did exactly that: he considered the source, understood where Greenwald stridently stood, knew he would be granted not simply a fair shake but a no-tough-questions-asked policy of public glorification, and he dove right in. Greenwald so desperately wants Snowden's story to be 100% on the up-and-up that he's making easily spotted, amateurish mistakes in the way he reports it, and all that's doing is giving his critics all the ammo they need to dismiss him and his "bombshell."
But that hardly matters to the faithful. For many on the left, Snowden's tale was unequivocally true and undoubtedly the stuff of paranoid nightmares long before it was even reported. Greenwald's stories and Snowden's nebulous accusations and behavior only confirmed that which the left already knew and had been railing about for years without direct proof of their suspicions. Any attempt to refute either, in the eyes of many far-left liberals, now amounts to little more than pro-surveillance state fealty to authority, regardless of how backed up by facts it happens to be. What's really ironic is that Greenwald has spent his entire recent career accusing anyone who disagrees with him of engaging in hero worship and submission to the "cult of personality" surrounding Barack Obama, and yet here he is now, prostrating himself before a man he himself believes can do no wrong and has in fact done an inarguable right: Edward Snowden. Even if Snowden's story has holes in it, who cares? The important thing is that he's a hero to the left. That serves the greater good.
Here's where I'm more than willing to admit that I generally give Obama the benefit of the doubt when it comes to controversies surrounding his administration. I don't discount the facts, but I always want to hear both sides of the argument before I rush to judgment simply because, yes, I think that overall Obama has done more good for the country than harm to it. There are certainly issues on which I've stood diametrically opposed to the president, including what Frank Rich of The New York Times called the "original sin" of the Obama presidency: his willingness to not only let the criminals who gangbanged the global economy off the hook but to call on them to be our ostensible saviors in the wake of the mess they made. But I've always believed that if you're looking to push through socially progressive legislation, Barack Obama was the best you were ever going to do in a country as evenly divided politically as ours is. That's political reality and there's no way around it; stomping your feet and pouting that your utopian ideals aren't being catered to to your satisfaction by this administration is a worthless endeavor. No one's saying that the president of the United States shouldn't be held accountable for his actions, inaction, and trespasses, but there's a way to do it that doesn't nihilisitcally burn down the entire house for the sake of making a point. That's smart accountability -- and it's something Greenwald knows nothing at all about.
Is my willingness to give Obama a little leeway its own form of hero worship? Maybe. Like I said, both sides do it. Confirmation bias can always get the best of us on occasion. But when it comes to Edward Snowden, serious though the overall disclosure of the NSA's activities may be, there are in fact simply too many holes in his story for me to buy completely into what he's selling. Couple that with Greenwald's undeniable biases and, yes, you've got yourself a revelation that just can't be taken at face value. And vehemently questioning the details of that revelation, no matter how much grief it'll get you from a vocal contingent of left-wing would-be acolytes in need of a hero, isn't somehow intellectually or morally dishonest. In fact, it's exactly the opposite.