Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Glennemy within

Chips and sandwich. Photo by Jim Rice, Sydney Morning Herald.
It is quite possible that I will never read any reviews of Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, NSA and the US National Security State, but if I do, Michael Kinsley's effort in the New York Times Book Review will not be one of them, because I'm one of those stupid people whose judgment of who to pay attention to is biased by prior experience; I hardly ever read anything by Greenwald unless the fact of his writing it is the news in its own right or I'm really looking for trouble, because I can't stand his style and figure if he has anything important to say somebody else will repeat it; and I never read anything by Kinsley because I can't imagine he would have anything important to say. Well, OK, I'll look at it.

Yup, he does say
It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.
That is at best very poorly expressed and at worst totally wrong.

"It seems clear to everybody, or rather to a subset of everybody with at least one member, and that minimal member is your present author." Wait wait, it only seems that it's clear to you? You're not sure whether it's clear to you or not because that appearance of clarity could be an illusion? Or it seems to you that it's clear to everybody although you acknowledge that it's not?

First Amendment jurisprudence is so familiar to the literate populace that even someone as stupid as me can pretty much say what's in it without help from Dr. Google, viz., on the one hand, that the private companies that own newspapers and the employees of those newspapers decide what to print without prior restraint (though hopefully in consultation with representatives of the executive in the case of material the publication of which might be "harmful to national security" because sometimes no doubt it really is), and are thus certainly the ones who make the ultimate decision; and, on the other, that it is possible that in so doing they could incur legal consequences, and in a separation-of-powers democracy (which, pace Kinsley, we still are) that decision is up to the judiciary, as opposed to the imaginary monolith government to which Kinsley refers. And I'm guessing Greenwald would agree to these stipulations (though I have no way of knowing for sure if I refuse to read him).

And then again, I feel there's something not quite justified in reacting to Kinsley's stupid piece and its stupid reception by writers who ought to know better with an imitation of Greenwald's style, as Barry Eisler does:
even more fascinating and revealing than Kinsley’s own demand — that when it comes to what the press should publish, "that decision must ultimately be made by the government,” and that journalists who don’t toe the government line might need to be “locked up" — has been the reaction of Kinsley’s peers.
Followed by Tweets from Jonathan Alter, Jonathan Chait, Jeffrey Goldberg, God-help-us David Gregory, and so forth congratulating Kinsley on his splendid defeat of the Glennemy. They no doubt deserve to be mocked, but Eisler isn't mocking them: he's seriously accusing them of rejoicing in attacks on the First Amendment, that "even more fascinating and revealing" being an authentically Greenwaldian way of saying "even more in agreement with my most improbable assertions, according to me". And "locked up" shouldn't be in quotes there, because it's not what Kinsley said, which was to propose two extremes, one of which has actually come to pass:
So what do we do about leaks of government information? Lock up the perpetrators or give them the Pulitzer Prize? (The Pulitzer people chose the second option.) This is not a straightforward or easy question.
Yes, Kinsley confuses the leaker and the journalist once more, but he doesn't say a journalist who "fails to toe the government line", which could only mean one who publicly disagrees with officially promulgated views, not one who may (though not, in my opinion, should) be regarded as complicit with what may be regarded as a national security offence.

Eisler goes on to say,
As for what causes people to fixate so intensely on Greenwald that they come to care more about his personality than they do about the Constitution, I can think of a variety of reasons. Some of them were part of an interesting discussion between Greenwald himself and Chris Hayes on Hayes’ show All In. Greenwald suggested a lot of the animosity has to do with his application to Obama of the principles he previously applied to Bush. The same liberals who cheered those principles when they were applied to a Republican find them heretical when applied to a Democrat.
And here again the Greenwaldism. Arguing that the anti-Greenwald party cares more about his personality than the Constitution begs the question of whether they noticed that the Constitution was in some sense under attack there, which they certainly did not any more than Kinsley himself, who merely has no idea of how badly he understands the Constitution and would not dream that he could be accused of subjecting it to abuse.

As to Greenwald's belief that he has done nothing but apply to President Obama the same "principles" as he did before 2009 to President Bush, that's where I came in. I can say that I largely stopped reading Greenwald when Bush was still in office, probably in mid-2007, not long after he started the Salon column, because he stopped being readable. Christ, those things were long and overseasoned with the adjectives! I was prepared at that point to believe that Richard Bruce Cheney had chopped his mother up and fed her to the seagulls, but I wasn't prepared to read it from GG.

But I think he's mistaken in saying he applies "principles" to Bush and to Obama; what he applies is prosecutorial techniques, which can be used, as we have learned, to convict the innocent along with the guilty. It's not "heretical" as far as I'm concerned (not being a religious person, I'm not sure I could judge) when Greenwald claims that Obama has "slaughtered...Muslim children by the dozens." But, as I've said at some length, it's really, really wrong. The attitude toward Greenwald has become personal because of the way he has personalized it, and he really has nobody to blame but himself. (Unless he likes it that way, of course, in which case he should stop blaming anybody.)
Santa Monica, actor dressed in bread, uncredited photo.

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