One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.
Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit
This past week turned into my Glenn Greenwald week. That wasn’t the plan, but blogging, like life, holds surprises. (Ah, a composition theme!) Of course, I knew of Greenwald, and had read him some, and seen him some, and I even knew that we had some general areas of agreement, as on torture and – despite my exception last week to the manner of his framing the issue in a post –the general sycophancy of mainstream journalists to power. But we will sometimes have limited areas of agreement with people for whom we otherwise do not care politically, as I do twice again in this series of posts, and I knew that Greenwald, overall, had little to offer me. So I have had some catching up to do to inform myself.
The positions Greenwald argues so tendentiously are subject to the dizzying thrust and parry of opposing fact citation, statistical accounts, and expert opinion linkage, all of which is performed regularly and extensively by bloggers across the web. What I am focusing on is the manner in which Greenwald argues. I have detected some characteristics.
As an example, let’s consider how the whole recent Greenwald attack on Jeffrey Goldberg began – with Greenwald ferociously accusing Goldberg of shoddy reporting in his blog commentary about Dave Weigel and his listerserve comments. This formed the basis for Greenwald’s real interest, his renewed attacks on Goldberg’s Iraq reportage. Goldberg’s error in reporting on Weigel was that he had accepted the opinions of friends at The Washington Post, friends who were not unbiased in the matter. Much of what Goldberg observed in his original post was later, in his revised judgment, mistaken, and he gradually retracted it over several posts the same day. That earned him no credit. As I have noted before, confessions of error that are unaccompanied by the offender’s entreaties for absolution and voluntary measurement for a hairshirt are good for little else from one’s adversaries but a nose rubbing. In the same post, much more damningly, Greenwald castigated Goldberg for never acknowledging the errors – and worse, far worse – Greenwald claims the latter made in that Iraq reporting. Greenwald, we need note, for whom adjectives are friends, does a very great deal of damning, in high moral dudgeon.
How do we find Greenwald to measure up in comparison, in consideration, for instance, of his handling of a recent event?
When Greenwald first posted on the Gaza flotilla incident, he repeated supposed accounts of the IDF
killing at least 10 civilians on board and injuring at least 30 more (many reports now put the numbers at 19 dead and 60 injured). The Israeli Defense Forces is claiming that its soldiers were attacked with clubs, knives and “handguns” when they boarded the ship without permission, but none of the Israeli soldiers were killed while two are reported injured.
Later, in Greenwald’s fifth of seven updates to the post, he claimed,
Thus, there are at least 10-20 dead passengers and 50-60 wounded on those ships — compared to no Israeli fatalities and virtually no wounded.
Now, first, the link that Greenwald provided in the first quote is to a Haaretz report of the same day that includes none of the civilian numbers Greenwald claims of the link. In fact, the report states in its headline:
Nine activists on board Gaza-bound flotilla killed in violent clashes when Israel Navy commandos boarded ships; 7 commandos hurt, 2 seriously.
That is nine “activists” dead – what turned out to be the correct number – rather than 10-20, and seven Israelis hurt, what Greenwald first reduced only to the two seriously wounded and later to “virtually no wounded.” Interestingly, he did not make the same reduction in number for the ship’s passengers from the total number wounded to only the nine who were seriously wounded. This is a telling point. Mistakes are often made in the early reporting of a breaking event, but consciously or not – and we would wish to credit Greenwald with consciousness in his writing – Greenwald reported the passenger wounded as the full number, without breaking out the “seriously” wounded. In the case of the IDF, he broke the two out and reported the lower, seriously wounded figure as the full total of all IDF wounded – before reducing it to “virtually” none. It puts one in mind of an old Soviet-era joke: according to Pravda, in a challenge race between a U.S. auto and Soviet car, the Soviet car came in second and the American entry next to last.
In fact, the wounded among the ships passengers totaled 34, nearly only half what Greenwald reported. So we see that Greenwald immediately picked up and ran with an inflated body count in the best Pallywood propagandistic tradition. Yet over the course of seven updates of that post and several more posts in the ensuing days, Greenwald did not correct himself. Neither did he correct the seemingly minor, but as we know in this case, very significant difference between the word “ships” he uses in his post, and the actual ship that applies, the difference between the one ship that did resist the IDF and all the others that did not making all the difference in the outcome. But then, again, Greenwald’s opening sentence said that Israel had “attacked” the flotilla, rather than only the Mavi Marmara. No correction of that either. [Emphasis added]
That is as to hypocrisy. Now to bullshit.
In the same post Greenwald also refers to the Israeli boarding as “piracy.” That is all well and not so good for the unschooled at the center of the emotional firestorm and the big money propagandists, like Oliver Stone, but Greenwald is that former “constitutional law and civil rights litigator.” Now, that does not make him an expert in international law or the law of the sea, but really, even a legal patzer like me knew Israel’s action was not remotely piracy, matey. Greenwald also, like many over the following days, referred repeatedly to the Mavi Marmara’s presence in “international waters,” as if that was determinative of anything. You’d think the lawyer would have some clue. For a good round up of the expert legal opinion on these and other matters blockade, try the Carnegie Council. (H/T Elder of Ziyon)
Once again, in that same post’s sixth update, Greenwald informs us that
It is a commonplace at this point for supporters of Israel to point out, to absolutely no effect, how the most virulent of Israel’s foes ignore in their anti-Israel campaigns any remotely similar focus on the worst human rights catastrophes in the world. And, yes, I do call Greenwald a foe: he states here, in a variation on common characterizations, that
[t]he one silver lining from these incidents is that the real face of Israel becomes increasingly revealed and undeniable. [Emphasis added]
So we know what Greenwald thinks of Israel, and anyone can discover how much less attention he offers to human rights concerns elsewhere. But now he actually calls on Russia, China, and Turkey, as character witnesses against Israel. Certainly, Greenwald would rely upon the Amnesty International annual reports
The North Caucasus remained volatile and reports of human rights violations, including killings, enforced disappearances and torture, were frequent….
The Law to Combat Extremism and legislation on libel and slander were used to stifle dissent and silence journalists and human rights activists. There were reports that criminal suspects were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment in order to extract confessions. Concerns continued about the failure to uphold fair trial standards….
Torture and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners were reported from throughout the Russian Federation. Methods detailed included beatings, electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags and being forced to stay in painful positions for prolonged periods. There were also reports of rape in detention.
The authorities intensified their use of administrative forms of detention which allowed police to incarcerate individuals without trial. Hundreds of thousands of individuals were in administrative detention, including in Re-education through Labour camps, where they may be detained for up to four years without trial. Secret detention centres on the outskirts of Beijing, referred to as “black jails”, reportedly detained thousands of petitioners – individuals seeking redress from central authorities for a wide variety of grievances they were unable to resolve locally – before they were forcibly returned to their home towns. Detainees in administrative detention remained at high risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
and on Turkey
Armed clashes between the Turkish army and PKK continued and the use of temporary security zones in eastern and south-eastern provinces increased. Bomb attacks, often by unknown individuals or groups, killed and injured civilians. The army carried out military incursions into northern Iraq targeting PKK bases. In October, parliament authorized the armed forces to make further military interventions in northern Iraq….
In the context of the conflict, Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin faced increased hostility, including harassment, assaults and attacks on their property perpetrated by unknown individuals or groups. In September, such attacks took place over several days in Altınova province, western Turkey. [Emphasis added]
All things considered, these nations make fine judges of Israel’s actions to meet its security threats. Their judgments should carry great credibility and there is no reason to question their motives or alliances. We understand why Greenwald would rely upon them in supporting his moral condemnation. We wait, then, to hear the judgment of North Korea and Myanmar. And for a brief return to the subject of Greenwald’s hypocrisy, here he is in a recent exchange with Eliot Spitzer, responding to Spitzer’s citing of Egypt as a participant in the Gaza blockdade:
And if you’re going to cite actions of the Egyptian dictatorship, as though that lent moral authority to this horrendous blockade. That’s pretty bizarre.
Finally, for now, in a post this past Friday titled, ironically, “Charles Krauthammer’s propaganda,” Greenwald attacked Krauthammer for claiming that “radical Islam” is the true cause of terrorism. I carry no brief for Krauthammer, and how people account for terrorism will be the subject of another post, but Greenwald criticizes him – calls him a propagandist – because Krauthammer quotes Faisal Shazhad, the Times Square attempted bomber, as stating, “I consider myself a mujahid, a Muslim soldier.” Greenwald correctly points out that Krauthammer omitted assertions by Shazhad that might seem to undercut Krauthammer’s argument:
I am part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people. And, on behalf of that, I’m avenging the attack.
This Greenwald adduces as evidence in his counter argument that Shazhad
became increasingly angry and radicalized as a result of U.S. actions in the Muslim world. [Greenwald’s emphasis]
Greenwald and Krauthammer are both tendentiously simplifying their considerations of terrorism and slanting their arguments. It is the common reductionist variation on the fallacy of false cause: to single out only one cause of a phenomenon and argue for it as the only cause. Greenwald demonstrates easily how Krauthammer does this, but my purpose is to show how Greenwald does it. Remember, then, the quote just above for next time.
To close this time, I return to Harry Frankfurt, from my epigraph at the head of this post, and his extended essay On Bullshit.
However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity which resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline.
In Greenwald’s case, of course, as I’ve suggested before, the legal background and citation, the dense linking, and the careful exposure of other people’s shaky premises and careless arguments all join together to create a particular sense of rigorous argument within the general run of public political commentators and bloggers – of just the argumentative craft and discipline Frankfurt notes. This, though, is distinct from the care in his own intellectual product. Recall, too. that Greenwald’s background is as a litigator, and a litigator’s job, within the bounds of law and known falsehood, is to make the best argument for his client, whatever the truth may be. Frankfurt observes,
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.
This is precisely what an advocate does who may not know the truth of his client’s position, who might even suspect his client’s adverse position, but who is committed in his service, almost ideologically, to advancing the best “panoramic” case for the client: “prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.”
The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.
Many people naively believe that the task of any lawyer in court is to pursue the truth – and such is the impression the lawyer will attempt to make before a jury – but any litigator will tell us, on multiple counts, that that isn’t so. The lawyer’s job is to put forward the best argument he can formulate for the position he has staked out for whomever he represents. Of truth, Frankfurt tells us,
The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
Of Greenwald, deep in it, next time.