Over the last several days, I’ve been commenting on the blog Sad Red Earth, run by A. Jay Adler. The post, guest-written by Rob H., that sparked the extensive comments was titled “Glenn Greenwald’s False Accusation Against The New York Times.” In it, Rob accused Glenn Greenwald, a political blogger on Salon.com, of falsely attributing anti-Muslim bias to the New York Times, which ran a headline immediately after the recent Oslo attacks stating, “Powerful Explosions Hit Oslo; Jihadis Claim Responsibility.”
Greenwald wrote that “for much of the day…the featured headline on The New York Times online front page strongly suggested that Muslims were responsible for the attacks on Oslo.” In reality, Rob countered, “the truth turned out to be that the headline he sharply criticized in two columns — over two days — was only online for about two hours, and NOT ‘much of the day.’ I confirmed this with a Senior Editor at The Times by simply sending him an email inquiring about the headline in question.”
First of all, assuming Rob is telling the truth (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), one should give credit where credit is due. Rob was right, and Greenwald was wrong. In fact, not only was he wrong, but his misinformation looks a bit suspicious: it’s difficult to mistake two hours for most of a day without some pretty severe preconceived biases.
The comments section of Rob’s post soon spun off into a million different directions, however, only some of which were related to the original subject. In general, the comments either supported or rebutted one of the following topics:
1) Glenn Greenwald “often makes mistakes and even admits it while declaring he’ll make many more.” He is thus irresponsible and unreliable as a writer/thinker, and is guilty of committing the same journalistic crimes as those he so often pillories.
2) Greenwald’s “worse [sic] trait is that, in Chomsky style, he truly sees the U.S. as nothing but a force of evil in the world, an [sic] also has this nasty little habit of advancing explicitly anti-Semitic arguments.”
3) As A. Jay put it, “Which is it – you want something ‘out of’ our relationship with Israel that you think we don’t get, or you morally can’t ‘stomach’ Israel? You can’t stomach Syria either, but at least you’re not paying for the upset, and that’s bottom line? And there are not other bases upon which to distinguish between then two and upon which to base our relations with them?”
4) The Godfather III. Don’t ask; I’ll explain later on in this post.
As Bernard-Henri Lévy concluded in his excellent introduction to Public Enemies, “These then are the terms of the debate.” Let us commence.
1) I have (perhaps unwisely) conceded that I am “a bit of a Greenwald fanboy,” to which Rob replied that he wished “you [would] attempt to scrutinize his work with ‘a bit’ more objectivity.” I suppose I should have clarified. By “fanboy,” I don’t mean that I accept all of Greenwald’s arguments unquestioningly, or that I necessarily agree with the tone of his columns, comments, or tweets. As it happens, his and my views on the Obama administration, Wikileaks, Israel, etc. are strikingly similar in many ways, but I am fully able to detect warning signs elsewhere: his quickness in resorting to sarcasm and ad hominem attacks against hypothetical, generalized, unintelligent people-groups, for example.
I am of the opinion that Greenwald’s positive impact far outweighs the negative value of his endless invectives — and, occasionally, is buttressed by them (when directed appropriately, and not indiscriminately against those with whom he disagrees). I was not a reader of his during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion nor during the commencement of military action in Afghanistan, and so I cannot dispute Rob’s assertion that he supported the Iraq war initially. (In fact, I’m not even sure where such proof can be found. Was he writing on Unclaimed Territory back in 2003? In 2001? Was it in one of his books? I would definitely like to see the proof, as that would be fairly surprising.)
Rob wrote, “…As I’ve shown, [Greenwald] often makes mistakes and even admits it while declaring he’ll make many more. So the next time you hear him haranguing journalists on their responsibilities to correct mistakes, keep that in mind that he clearly doesn’t correct his own.” He has made mistakes, yes, but often? I suppose that’s a subjective question to which no clear answer can satisfy both parties, but I think it’s at least one worth pondering.
To take the example Rob used in his post, it is true that Greenwald failed to revise his post to note the update to Jennifer Rubin’s atrocious column (the one that preemptively assigned blame for the Norway attacks to Muslim jihadists, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever). But the context here is important. First of all, Greenwald cited another journalist, James Fallows, in criticizing Rubin’s post, instead of doing so directly. He did this because Fallows had dedicated an entire post to the lunacy of Rubin’s assumptions and subsequent failure to correct them. Fallows’ post (to which Greenwald linked in his own post) was updated later on, linking to Rubin’s update.
It should also be noted that Greenwald was specifically attacking the primitive mindset that results in the following thinking: “Al Qaeda is always to blame, even when it isn’t, even when it’s allegedly the work of a Nordic, Muslim-hating, right-wing European nationalist.” This is relevant because Rubin’s update never actually corrected any of her underlying assumptive reasoning, only the irrefutable facts of the Oslo case specifically. In fact, she defended her original comments, writing,
That the suspect here is a blond Norwegian does not support the proposition that we can rest easy with regard to the panoply of threats we face or that homeland security, intelligence and traditional military can be pruned back. To the contrary, the world remains very dangerous because very bad people will do horrendous things. There are many more jihadists than blond Norwegians out to kill Americans, and we should keep our eye on the systemic and far more potent threats that stem from an ideological war with the West.
Aside from the laughably elementary reasoning here — “the world remains very dangerous because very bad people will do horrendous things” — the salient point is that Rubin failed to correct her preconceived notions, the very existence of which Greenwald dedicated his post (and, indeed, much of his writing at Salon.com) to exposing as the toxin it is. Greenwald did cite Fallows in an aside about Rubin’s then-nonexistent update, and he should have noted the change once it occurred. But there is a substantive difference in severity between failing to note a minor update that does nothing to correct the very sin that Greenwald’s post addressed and, say, writing a post that inexplicably embraced a fallacious central thesis and then defending it once its entire premise was rendered invalid.
In other words, I’ll gladly concede Greenwald’s technical flaws. But until he fails on a larger scale — for example, misreading an article, writing a post based primarily on his misreading, and then not correcting his mistake (as opposed to updating his post with a correction) — I maintain that his errors fall well within journalistic norms. (Take, for example, Bill Keller, the outgoing executive editor of the New York Times, whose 41.6% correction rate as a writer for the Magazine far surpasses Greenwald’s.) He could, perhaps, benefit from a less hostile tone, but the content of his critiques of the Obama administration, the media, and other institutions is generally (in my opinion) spot-on. I wish I knew why he got the timeline of the New York Times headlines on the Oslo attacks wrong, but this appears to be an isolated incident and not a trend. I am willing to be corrected on this if necessary, however. Meanwhile, his media and political critiques remain as pertinent as ever, in my opinion, and they are the reason I continue to read his columns with interest on a regular basis.
2) I don’t feel that this particular point necessitates much time or effort in terms of a response; but it is important to note that, all too often, critics of American policies are branded as anti-American or self-loathing Americans when, in reality, it is this ever-questioning introspection that is often so sorely lacking from national discourse. This is not to say that “the U.S. [is] nothing but a force of evil in the world,” but that when the country is seen as deviating from core national principles, sharp criticism is not only acceptable, but necessary. I don’t think I’m being particularly controversial here; where things get blurred is in relation to the question of what constitutes our core national principles. I will not be getting into an in-depth discussion of that here.
In terms of Greenwald’s “nasty little habit of advancing explicitly anti-Semitic arguments,” well, I’ll believe it when I see it. (Hint: I don’t expect this to happen any time soon.) Taking what some may perceive as a hard-line stance against Israeli policies does not equal anti-Semitism. And if Greenwald is in fact anti-Semitic, I’m not sure why he would write this, for example:
It goes without saying that there are other factions and motives behind the push for war with Iran besides right-wing Jewish groups…And, it should also be noted, a huge portion of American Jews, if not the majority, do not share this agenda.
Later on in the same post, Greenwald cited an American Jewish Committee poll that found that “only 38% of American Jews support American military action, down from 49% last year.” He then followed this quote with an observation of his own, stating that, “Despite their influence, Jewish neoconservatives and groups like AIPAC are highly unrepresentative of American Jews as a whole. Those facts only further undescore [sic] the baselessness and pure malice driving the attempt to equate opposition to their agenda with ‘anti-semitism.'” Note that he is referring to the agenda of specific Jewish lobbying groups, not Jewish interests as a whole, which he clearly differentiates. He has also used polls to demonstrate that the American “political class” (as he describes it) is out of tune with the American public at large on the subject of Israel.
None of this even approaches “explicitly anti-Semitic arguments.” I am also open to being proven wrong by other anti-Semitic statements that Greenwald has made, but I would be shocked if anyone could produce even one.
3) A. Jay’s question here — and the related questions that necessarily come up in answering it — is worth discussing at length. The short answer is, “Yes, I want something more out of an alliance that is supposed to be mutually beneficial, and yes, I also have moral problems with Israel’s policies.”
On the one hand, I identify strongly with Greenwald’s belief that Israel’s diplomatic, cultural, and even financial dependencies on the United States render it worthy of closer inspection. This is essentially an argument from realpolitik, and it applies to any nation with which the United States closely allies itself. Given that Israel is often considered the most crucial American partner of all, the relationship deserves to be scrutinized thoroughly. On this point, Greenwald is very consistent:
Don’t we have more of a responsibility to act when such brutality is carried out by regimes that we arm, support and prop up than by ones we don’t? (Greenwald, 7/9/2011)
Citizens bear a particular responsibility to object to unjust actions which their own Government engages in or enables. It shouldn’t be the case — but it is — that Americans fund, arm and enable Israel’s wars. Those are American weapons which, at least in part, are being used to destroy Gaza, and Americans therefore bear a special responsibility for condemning Israel’s unjust actions to a far greater extent than the actions of any other country except for the U.S. (Greenwald, 1/14/2009)
As I wrote on Saturday regarding Israel’s varied wars, walls and blockades: “since we fund a huge bulk of it and supply the weapons used for much of it and use our veto power at the U.N. to enable all of it, we are connected to it — intimately — and bear responsibility for all of Israel’s various wars, including the current overwhelming assault on Gaza, as much as Israelis themselves.” With our bipartisan policy of blind and absolute support for Israel — not just rhetorical but military and material as well — our political leadership has inextricably (and foolishly) tied American interests to Israel’s interests. (Greenwald, 12/30/2008)
Rob, noting Greenwald’s relative silence on Egyptian policies under former President Hosni Mubarak, countered:
As to Egypt, it is simply a fact that Glenn never criticized Mubarak’s Egypt, even as Mubarak used US military aid to repress his own people. Only when Glenn thought he could use that to his advantage did he begin bringing it up. That’s called a double-standard. And you can choose to view that aid as some sort of pay-off to maintain an “alliance” with Israel, but that’s simply a poorly drawn caricature of historically complex relationships between the superpowers, Egypt and other states in the region. After all, Sadat began dismantling Egypt’s alliance with the Soviets almost as soon as he attained power (and then basically threw them out in 1976). And part of the Camp David Accords provided the first framework for settling the Palestinian issue. And that led to Oslo. And so on and so on. To paraphrase Bob Marley: for every little action, there’s a reaction.
A. Jay made much the same point:
Being political friends (one implication of “alliance”) is a distant shout of alarm away from being paid off not to engage in, provoke, or support war against Israel or to formalize cultural and religious anti-Semitism as foreign policy.
I’m not certain I understand the lesson here. Rob’s explanation of Sadat’s motivations for making peace with Israel does not in any way diminish the fact that this peace came about, from the American side especially, as a result of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords. The same can be said of A. Jay’s distinction between an “alliance” and “being paid off not to engage in…war against Israel.” The historical timeline that led to Camp David is not relevant to this question because, in the end, Egypt was rewarded monetarily by the United States (and continues to be, over three decades later) expressly for its agreement with Israel, a treaty over which the US presided.
The nature of the treaty is similarly unrelated. As an American, I am deeply concerned by the “actions which [my] own Government engages in or enables.” This means that if, for example, representatives of my government state that “President Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil relationship and consider the USD 1.3 billion in annual FMF as ‘untouchable compensation’ for making and maintaining peace with Israel,” then, for all intents and purposes, American foreign aid to Egypt is unquestionably a reward for that peace. Neither the degree to which that peace is an “alliance” nor the historical context that enabled Anwar Sadat to sign the historic agreement even slightly alters the fact that the United States is rewarding Egypt for favorable behavior towards Israel. (And Sadat’s eventual assassination at the hands of opponents of the Camp David Accords is proof positive that the world, and certainly Egyptians, understood very well that Egypt had exchanged peace with Israel for American support.)
Thus, one cannot separate the American-Egyptian alliance from the American-Israeli alliance, as the former is dependent in large part upon the latter. (The same is true, perhaps to a lesser extent, of the American-Jordanian alliance.) Rob wrote:
And it does matter to me where my money goes, but I don’t limit my compassion for a country’s citizens based on how much aid we give their government. When I look at Sudan and see genocide, I don’t waffle because my country ain’t waltzin’ with Bashir. I send money to those I feel are helping, I attend rallies and I write letters. It ain’t much, but I do what I can do. Now imagine what Glenn could do on that issue. But he won’t because of his supposedly strict doctrine.
And yet there is a world of difference between feeling generic “compassion” on the one hand and protesting one’s own government’s lockstep relationship with a troublesome ally on the other. I, for one, would feel a much greater deal of personal responsibility for the genocide in Sudan if my country were actively supporting the oppressing regime. That we did not proactively attempt to halt the massacres could be seen by others as an equally egregious (non-)action. But in general, I look at American policy and ask what could be changed for the better. I, like many others, am not entirely convinced that sending in troops (and thus creating a fourth simultaneous American war) to stop the bloodshed in Sudan would have made much sense. This in no way diminishes my sadness and disgust with the violence there, but simply represents my recognition of the limits of American influence. In regards to Syria, where Rob disagrees with me in relation to how much leverage the United States holds, the question is similarly academic. He may think one thing, and I may think another, but in each case we are strategizing according to our perceptions of American influence in that particular region.
And so it is that I believe the US can hugely shape our relations with dozens of countries for the better if we first reassess the nature of our current relationship with Israel. Many will disagree on the need for, and the effects of, such a recalibration, and the arguments on both sides have been discussed and fleshed-out enough that to go through the reasons now is beyond the scope of this post. Regardless of its rightness or wrongness, however, this is my argument from pragmatism.
My argument from morality is decidedly less complicated, even if the global debate surrounding Israel’s policies is infinitely so. A. Jay, in criticizing Greenwald’s and my basis for critiquing Israeli policies, wrote:
And this policy consideration, which you mostly present in cold, calculative terms – what is the U.S. getting in return for its aid, commitment, and alliance. Then, the class under consideration consists only of those nations with which the U.S. has such relations, and its members are evaluated according to (as you seem to set them) practical political criteria. But the judgments Greenwald makes about Israel (and you less explicitly within this discussion) are not these simply political judgments predicated on association – thought that sop is thrown out as a cover – but absolute moral judgments about nations, their policies and conduct. Then Syria is indeed in the mix, and Myanmar, and China, and Russia, and Sudan and on and on.
But once again, I can harbor misgivings on both a pragmatic and a moral level simultaneously. Furthermore, the two are not completely unrelated. If Israel does indeed act immorally, which I believe is often the case, and the United States unquestioningly supports the Israeli government as it does so, then why can’t there be dual causes for concern? On the one hand, many of Israel’s policies are (to my reasoning) morally bankrupt. But in addition to this, these immoral actions affect all those with whom Israel associates. The US, then, as Israel’s closest ally, stands to suffer the most (other than Israel itself) in terms of hostility directed at it by other nations that are repulsed by Israel’s behavior.
So, then, am I wary of Israel on moral or pragmatic grounds? The answer is: both. The actions I find reprehensible are troubling to me both morally and in terms of realpolitik. Other countries with far worse records of behavior (e.g. Syria) are even more morally appalling; the difference is, by my judgment, I don’t believe there is much the US can easily do in practice that would successfully stop this behavior without harming US interests. On Israel, I think the situation is exactly reversed: the US could both increase its global standing and help to end certain injustices (or at least to prod Israel in the right direction) by ceasing its mindless rubber-stamping of every misguided Israeli policy. That’s why someone like Glenn Greenwald may spend relatively little time dwelling on Syrian atrocities, or genocide in Sudan, but latches onto Israeli policies with relish: here’s a major tenet of American foreign policy that we can actually fix. Here’s a situation where we can enact real change and, even more pressingly, where we can reverse decades of ill-conceived American policy in regards to the Middle East.
4) Am I the only one in the world who enjoyed The Godfather III? Sofia Coppola tried her best to ruin it, but I actually think Al Pacino’s character was more affecting and raw than in the first two films (which were undoubtedly two of the greatest movies in cinematic history). Anyway, I’m all blog-posted out now.
- Glenn Greenwald: If The Threat Is So Puny, Why The Ongoing “War On Terror” (alan.com)
- The omnipotence of Al Qaeda and meaninglessness of “Terrorism” – Glenn Greenwald – Salon.com (underpaidgenius.com)
- Bloggingheads TV Dialogue with Glenn Greenwald (volokh.com)
- The omnipotence of Al Qaeda and meaninglessness of “Terrorism” (alhittin.wordpress.com)
- Norway Terror Reveals Disturbing Assumptions About Muslims (news.firedoglake.com)
- U.S. Media Double Standards (mtrtmk.wordpress.com)