The Matter of Glenn Greenwald


Let a hundred blogs bloom: let a hundred schools of condign retribution contend.

Something like that. Mao was so ahead of his time in so many ways. In this blooming bloggery, stars arise, tall stalks that reach for the sky. Lesser plants, leaning toward the light, bend in their direction. They lean toward Glenn Greenwald. What is it that attracts? We’ve done some analysis already, multiple times. Still the hothouse humidly blushes. Very recently, I considered Greenwald on Christopher Hitchens soon after the latter’s death. But while Hitchens has been dead over a month now, the influence of influential writers influences on: only a week ago, John R. MacArthur of Harper’s, having already written this of Hitchens, was led by the very same Greenwald post to reconsider and offer in follow up this. How much did MacArthur understand of the rhetorical display to which he responded? Would his deepened insight, once again, change anything? We can only wonder. Nonetheless, we should understand, shouldn’t we?

In the following guest post, cross-posted by Reilly at counter-dominance, the Greenwald post on Hitchens is analyzed yet again, in more precise rhetorical terms, offering even deeper insight into deceptive strategies Greenwald tends to repeat, and some of which, as I will argue in the next day or so, have become a standard M.O., among one school of the Hundred Flowers, in argumentative misdirection.


Greenwald’s self-display

The post-mortem of Christopher Hitchens’ public persona is well over and whether or not there’s an Eternity where Hitchens now resides doesn’t change the fact that, for the rest of us, his afterlife lasted about six days. During that time his body of work was autopsied, his psyche was dissected and his character was examined by an impromptu convention of socio-political pathologists-cum-morticians who vied to prepare his legacy for final viewing. It was an undertaking of competing persuasion — an open casket filled by various writers with carefully directed words, the words establishing the significance of what those authors believed should remain, the remains thus becoming a concentration of certain valuations, and the valuations, like pallbearers, leading the respective processions to their opposing destinations; praise or censuretribute ordenunciationencomium or vituperation.  It was a classic demonstration of epideictic rhetoric and, as is the nature of the epideictic — I display for the audience this person’s virtues – or — I expose to the audience this person’s vices — these writings, even in the cases when both commendation and condemnation were mixed to some degree, were presented straightforwardly.  Regardless of their conclusions or their ability to persuade that is the one element these writings had in common;  the authors engaged the subject directly, whether through sentiment, feeling, intellect, or reason.  In short they were honest in their approach, however influenced by point of view.  The substance and merit of the arguments these writers put forth about Hitchens — whether positive or negative – doesn’t interest me.  All of that ground has been covered and I don’t intend to exhume Hitchens for further appraisal, nor will I attempt to resurrect the battle over posthumous perception.

There was one piece of writing during that six day period which I will address.  It was forensic in nature rather than epideictic, or, more accurately, it was a manufactured forensic within which there was an epideictic.  Unlike the aforementioned pieces of writing, this one was the opposite of straightforward.  In fact it was so thoroughly dishonest from premise to particular that one would need to scour the work of right-wing pundits to find its equal.  I’m speaking of the article “Christopher Hitchens and the Protocol for Public Figure Deaths.” written by Glenn Greenwald and published on his blog at Salon on December 17.
Right from the title Greenwald apprises us of the injustice that he’s compelled to tilt against; a “protocol” which is inhibiting criticism of Hitchens upon his death, a protocol which has its roots in the “unhealthy conflation of appropriate post-death etiquette for private persons and the etiquette governing deaths of public figures.”  In order to illustrate this protocol, Greenwald spends about one third of his article recounting Ronald Reagan’s funeral and the media’s handling of that spectacle.  In order to prove a parallel situation at work with Hitchens, Greenwald, well…does nothing.  The inference is supposed to be enough.  If you’re looking for concrete instances of “etiquette-based prohibitions on speaking ill of the dead”  directed towards Hitchens you won’t find any.  Greenwald offers no hyperlinks but an abundance of hyperbole:

Nobody should have to silently watch someone with this history be converted into some sort of universally beloved literary saint. To enshrine him as worthy of unalloyed admiration…

Hitchens’ champions don’t just want him to be loved, but beloved, and not simply beloved but universally beloved, and not measured as a mere writer, but beatified as a literary saint.  They don’t want only to memorialize him but to enshrine him.  They’re not satisfied with a degree of admiration, they want unalloyed admiration. Greenwald is firing rounds of fully loaded language, but who is he aiming at?  Not the un-cited and unspecified admirers of Hitchens.  And not Hitchens himself.  Greenwald’s aiming at his readership.  He’s discharging bursts of smoke and emotion to cloud the field and obscure the figure of the straw man he’s created.

Nor should anyone be deterred by the manipulative, somewhat tyrannical use of sympathy: designed to render any post-death criticisms gauche and forbidden.

Nothing defuses loaded language and exposes vague accusation more efficiently than the question mark:  Who were these manipulative tyrants who suppressed criticism under the guise of sympathy?  And why wouldn’t they deserve a link, or at least one quote?

But demanding in the name of politeness or civility that none of that be balanced or refuted by other facts is to demand a monopoly on how a consequential figure is remembered, to demand a license to propagandize….

Who made these demands?  Where are the links and the quotes?  Did this happen on the internet?  Demands for politeness and civility on the internet generally get nothing but a chuckle and a pejorative or a pile-on of derision, as they should.  Certainly nobody would take that seriously, let alone pretend that it was an oppressive force or actual obstacle.  If these demands were made by one or more of the establishment media stars then why not identify the person or persons?  If Greenwald could produce a quote from Judy Woodruff about Reagan’s funeral, and if, as he states, the same “protocol” was at work in Hitchens’ case, then why couldn’t he produce a quote about any of his claims listed here?

I could go on citing the exaggerated and misleading language meant to angry up the reader’s blood with righteous indignation — “But what should not be tolerated are prohibitions on these types of discussions…” – and the weasel words — “There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins.” – meant to insinuate rather than demonstrate, but there’s no need to hold up each soiled garment one by one.  There are other points to be made.

Besides the biased, emotion-laden language, the over-the-top melodramatic phrasing, and the caricature of phantom demands in these passages, there’s also an underlying current of victimhood.“Nobody should have to silently watch…” lamented Greenwald in that first quote.  Indeed nobody did have to silently watch, least of all Greenwald who is firm in his view of the influence that the blogosphere in general exerts on political discourse and opinion, and even more adamant about the measurable effects generated from his own personal platform.  Greenwald’s colleagues at Salon, Alex Pareene and Michael Lind, certainly didn’t “silently watch”; they both wrote stinging criticisms of Hitchens.  And although Greenwald couldn’t point to a single example of pro-Hitchens protocol enforcement, he did manage to link to criticisms of Hitchens from three other bloggers; Corey Robin, John Cook, and Aaron Bady.  The pretense of victimization, like the other manipulative elements I mentioned, all have the same source –Greenwald’s self-indulgence in pursuing a forensic argument based on a false premise and a fictional injustice rather than straightforwardly offering an epideictic of his own.  The wasted word count between the Reagan conflation and the sophistry-stuffed straw man would have left him plenty of room for unrestrained criticism.  But maybe that’s the problem since most of the space Greenwald actually dedicates to criticism of Hitchens is filled with words borrowed from others.  Maybe he just didn’t have all that much to say.   After all Greenwald does remark that he “rarely wrote about (Hitchens) because… there was nothing particularly notable about him.”  Strangely though, he contradicts that when he admonishes his readers that to have a public discourse without criticizing Hitchens is to “insist that (his) actions were either themselves commendable or, at worst, insignificant.”  And in one of the quotes above, Greenwald refers to Hitchens asa consequential figure.” Perhaps there’s a protocol for public figures who are not “particularly notable” when alive but become immediately significant after death.
One of the the authors Greenwald chooses as a prop for criticism-filler is George Orwell, although Greenwald can hardly be singled-out for that.  On the internet left, whether blogger or commenter, it is absolutely impossible to go to the Orwell once too often.  There are so many Orwell quotes, so many references to Animal Farm and 1984, and so many invocations of the term “Orwellian” that now when I run across them my jaw goes slack and my eyes glaze over — Homage to Catatonia.  There’s Orwell-the-political-Nostradamus, Orwell-the-incorruptible-truth-teller, and most often, Orwell-the-validator-of-whatever-point-I’m-making-now.  That’s the one Greenwald opts for, so he pulls a passage from the sacred text of Orwell and clubs Hitchens over the headstone with it.  I have no problem with that but I do have to wonder (I guess I’m not immune from the phenomenon) what Orwell-the-essayist would have to say about Greenwald’s unsupportable and intellectually dishonest piece of writing.

Besides commandeering the sword of Orwell to use against Hitchens, Greenwald enlists Hitchens himself as shield against more of those phantom etiquette crusaders.  In an update to his piece, Greenwald writes:

The day after Jerry Falwell died, Hitchens went on CNN and scorned what he called “the empty life of this ugly little charlatan,” saying: ”I think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.” As I said, those demanding that Hitchens not be criticized in death are invoking a warped etiquette standard on his behalf that is not only irrational, but is one he himself vigorously rejected.

Evidently he thinks Hitchens is proving his point, but what Greenwald unwittingly demonstrates is the falseness of his entire premise.  Falwell was much more widely known by the public and also commanded a much greater access to mainstream media venues, especially cable news programs.  If there does indeed exist “etiquette-based prohibitions” and an enforced “protocol” for public figures which bar criticism of them after their deaths, then why was Hitchens able to go onto CNN and say what he said the very day after Falwell died?  The answer of course is that Greenwald’s formulation is a complete fantasy.  And let’s say this much for Hitchens; at least when Falwell died Hitchens was straightforward enough to engage in no-holds-barred public vituperation of him.  The same can be said of the aforementioned Alex Pareene and Michael Lind as well as Alexander Cockburn and others with regard to Hitchens after his death.  Only Greenwald felt the need to rail about nonexistent constraints rather than engage the subject fully and directly.

What motivated Greenwald is purely speculative but interesting nonetheless.  Perhaps he looked out through the narrow view of his twitter window, saw a few flashes and concluded there was a media shower across the entire sky.  Or perhaps a couple of fellow bloggers shook the word “hagiography” under his nose and it acted on him like catnip (yes, maybe that’s why it’s called a buzzword.)  Or perhaps he’s guilty of the same behavior he so easily accuses others of – being slothful.  But one thing is certain, Greenwald’s analysis is inept to the point of embarrassing.

To summarize the media treatment of Reagan’s funeral as the product of “…an unhealthy conflation of appropriate post-death etiquette for private persons and the etiquette governing deaths of public figures.”  and to conclude that “extremely politicized tributes” were “shielded from refutation or balance by the grief of a widow and social mores that bar one from speaking ill of the dead.”  is to misconstrue the forces at work by a proportionality that’s almost dumbfounding.  Reagan’s treatment wasn’t due to social mores or etiquette or taboo or the feelings of a loved one, it was a living, breathing demonstration of political/media hegemony or, more commonly, cultural hegemony.  No one needs to be a Marxist, or to have read Gramsci, to grasp this in our day and age.

And the cultural hegemony with regard to Reagan was solidified long before his death.  These two statements by Greenwald: “That week forever changed how Ronald Reagan — and his conservative ideology — were perceived.” and “Though he became more popular after leaving office (like most Presidents), it was that week-long bombardment of hagiography that sealed Reagan’s status as Great and Cherished Leader.”, have no basis whatsoever in reality.  They are, like almost everything else in this article, unsupported and unsupportable.  Greenwald cites a Gallup poll about Reagan’s polling numbers while he was in office but those numbers aren’t proof of his claim.  Gallup’s retrospective job approval ratings for Reagan show him at 71% approval in February 1999.  He slides down to 66% in February 2000, and then rises to 73% by March of 2002.  Gallup’s next available poll shows Reagan back down to 71% in 2006 (two years after his funeral) and then up to 74% in 2010.  So, unequivocally, it wasn’t the funeral week that “forever changed how Ronald Reagan — and his conservative ideology — were perceived.” , and it wasn’t “that week-long bombardment of hagiography that sealed Reagan’s status as Great and Cherished Leader.”  If we look again at the first graph, we can clearly see what transpired.  In November of 1993 Reagan had a 52% approval rating.  By February 1999 he had a 71% approval rating and since then, as we’ve just seen, his ratings have fluctuated by going down no more than 5 points and up by no more than three.  Obviously the six years between 1993 and 1999 were what “forever changed” how Reagan was perceived.  And even those on the margins of political awareness – let alone a professional pundit – could probably be able to figure out why.  That was the period during which Clinton was besieged by the right with the blessing and active cooperation of the “liberal” media.  That was the period during which the “culture wars” were elevated to primacy in our political universe with the active participation of an establishment media intent on valuing “real Americans” over “elites”.  And all of that was tied together by an active, consciously intended campaign by the GOP to lionize Reagan and make him look, in retrospect, as if he had been the embodiment of cherished American virtues – virtues, they would have us believe, that Clinton lacked and that the country had by then somehow lost.   And it worked, but it took years — not a week.  That week was the expression of the hegemony already fully created, not the cause of it.  It’s an insult that Greenwald tried to pass this off as analysis.  What we don’t need is another pundit, whether from the mainstream media or from the blogosphere, who thinks he can twist history for his own convenience.   In Hitchens’ case Greenwald invented societal forces that didn’t exist.  In Reagan’s case he trivialized the ones that did.  He had to elevate the first and diminish the second in order for both to occupy the same fabricated construct.

This isn’t the first time Greenwald has used that tactic. In his post The Libya War Argument he begins not with Libya but with the Iraq war and the reaction of “war advocates” in 2003 after Baghdad fell to American troops and Saddam Hussein was captured. He states that:

war proponents, given pervasive hatred of Saddam, dared anyone to question the war in the wake of those emotional events and risk appearing to oppose Saddam’s defeat. That tactic succeeded in turning war criticism in the immediate aftermath of those events into a taboo…

It’s undeniable that criticism of the Iraq war was delegitimized and treated with contempt after these two events, but It wasn’t “war proponents” — some faction of society — that celebrated Baghdad’s fall and Saddam’s death and turned criticism into taboo, it was the full power of political/media hegemonic enforcement. Then in order to draw a correlation from that to the Libyan war Greenwald writes:

And now, in the wake of the apparent demise of the Gadaffi regime, we see all sorts of efforts, mostly from Democratic partisans, to exploit the emotions from Gadaffi’s fall to shame those who questioned the war…

And as proof of these “efforts” Greenwald offers…(I’m not making this up)…a tweet from Think Progress and a blog entry from Balloon Juice.

Just as in the Hitchens piece, Greenwald diminishes the actual societal forces at play on one side and invents forces by elevating trivialities on the other side, so that both conform to his narrative. And again as in his Hitchens post, Greenwald, writing from his influential platform over which he has complete editorial control, strikes the pose of victim on whom “demands” are being made even as he spends most of his word count on conflation and inference rather than directly addressing an argument, and even though the oppressive forces he tilts against are little more than other people’s opinion.

I don’t know what motivates Greenwald to engage in this type of rhetoric. But I do know that reason and critical thought don’t rely on inference, unproven assertion and loaded language. And I also know that Greenwald doesn’t illuminate our reality with this kind of work – he concocts his own. Then he stands above it to rail about the elements that he himself has contrived.

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17 thoughts on “The Matter of Glenn Greenwald

  1. I am sorry I did not post the comment publicly; I am happy you made a pathetic reply to my post; unfortunately, shoe shine boy for Hitchens, you did not touch, dare not touch, the esssence of Greenwald’s critique of Snitch: his propagandistic campaign for the illegal, immoral, and unfounded war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) means that he has some moral responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of people murdered, maimed, and displaced and UNCOMPENSATED for their injuries and losses.

    Was the war/occupation in Iraq not going on in 2008? Did you not self appoint as the defender of Hitchens and his never ending apologia for the loathsome Bushies? Well, I can’t say never ending since either God or nature ended it. What do you call a dead Chris Hitchens? One less war monger.

    1. The reasoned and substantive force of this ejaculation, absent mere bald assertion or empty moral clamor, unstained by the juvenilia of rabid insult, is beyond my ability to respond. I’m glad Robert Pentangelo used so well the time that has passed since I last analyzed his virtues here,, to formulate so improved a presentation of his argument and himself. I will happily let it stand unsullied by any reply from me.

    2. Robert
      I wrote the following, in the comment section of Bile as Argument, not as token generosity but, I thought, as accurate portrayal.

      And I’m sure you’d agree that one of the things to keep in mind about Pentangelo — despite the fevered, militant nature of his e-mail to you — is that he almost certainly has the intellectual capability to understand your critique of Greenwald’s method of argumentation as existing entirely apart from “a defense of the Iraq War or a criticism of Glenn Greenwald’s own position on the Iraq War”…

      But you proved here, so starkly, so incontestably, how far off my assessment was that I could almost think, for a moment, that you were debasing yourself, shamelessly but cleverly, simply to make me wrong. In the end though, I couldn’t allow myself to over-credit you a second time.

    1. I appreciate that Jay. And I just stopped over there to say thanks. Enjoy your vacation. A side trip to Brazil, eh? Well sometimes I guess you have to take the critique to the next level. Donner quelque chose de mano y mano

      1. Reilly…

        I pointed it out, too, with your link, but Jay beat me to it. I also included links to two of Jay’s pertinent pieces (Bile and Green/Hitch). Our comments haven’t shown up yet. Hope they do.

        (have a good time in Ecuador, Jay!)

        — Rob

  2. Jay,
    Here’s the e-mail I just sent John R. MacArthur at the only e-mail address I could find; a generic one — harpers@harpers. Maybe they’ll pass it along.
    John R. MacArthur,
    I was fascinated to read that your change of perception regarding Hitchens was based on your reading of Greenwald’s piece, though I admit that one may suddenly take notice of the moon even from the tiny glint of light reflected by a fish lying dead on the beach.
    It isn’t the moon I concern myself with, but I would like to bring your attention back to the dead fish. If you walk further down the beach you will be able to see — and to smell — its true nature, and, I can promise you, whatever glitter you first imagined will be gone. Jay Adler of the sad red earth and I, in a guest post there, offer all the light — aside from your own, once relit — that you will need for closer inspection.
    I beckon you down the beach, as does Jay, who did so by name when he asked in his introduction to my post:

    How much did MacArthur understand of the rhetorical display to which he responded? Would his deepened insight, once again, change anything? We can only wonder.

    In that same introduction you will find a link to Jay’s post about the very same Greenwald piece. Comb the beach as we have and see for yourself the revelations that lie in the sand.

    1. That’s another instance. We’ve identified a common Greenwald gambit – the hyperbolic straw man. He invents an oppressive argument, restraining free thought, against which to rebel – describing it in the most extreme terms – then counters it.

      1. Glenzilla vs. the Hyberbolic Straw Man
        It’s Greenwald’s favorite movie! Unfortunately it belongs on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

    2. No, Greenwald doesn’t reply to challenges of premise or exposure of his straw man constructions. The frisbee analogy I offered in the comment section of Jay’s post from yesterday, Bile as Argument, can be useful again here. Chasing the frisbee is the first qualification for engagement by Glenn in his yard. How you chase it, how far you chase it, fighting over it, pulling it to the right or the left, or tearing at one particular part of it — none of that disqualifies you from possible interaction. Even ending up in the next yard over and insisting that the frisbee should have landed there will at least ensure a lecture from Glenn about your apparent inability to follow the “logical” trajectory, not to mention inciting a cacophony of howls from the rest of his pack. But questioning how Greenwald threw the frisbee, or worse yet, pointing out that there was no frisbee, that it was a fake throw, disqualifies you from any response by Greenwald. And, as you’ve probably noted, the pack over there has thinned considerably over the years. But the ones who remain are very good frisbee chasers.

      1. Reilly,

        I was being facetious (should have been more obvious). One thing I’ve learned is that rarely does Greenwald reply when you’ve got him dead to rights. And if he does, he’ll likely insult you, take your words out of context, or simply lie. Of course you sound like someone who’s well aware of that.

        It’s been months since I’ve posted a comment to one of his long-winded pieces. It’s just not worth my time. But thanks to Jay, I have been able to get some of the lesser known and ugly aspects of Glenn’s past to a wider audience. And Glenn has never responded to one of Jay’s pieces because it’s likely he doesn’t want to shine any light on the substantive criticism Jay has brought to bear on the paucity of his arguments. If Glenn feels he has an edge, he’ll go to war well-knowing the ensuing fight will get notice. But he’s clearly outmatched here so better not to respond.

        As to the pack thinning, I think the pack has always been somewhat thin. What they lack in numbers, they make up for in the sheer amount of comments they post. When I was there over the course of about two years, it was always the same people bickering and insulting each other in comment after comment, which they likely still do. And his comment section often devolves into subjects wholly unrelated to Glenn’s post. Then again, you probably know that, too. And let’s face it, Salon loves the page hits, links and subsequent ad revenue Glenn generates for them. It only encourages him to quadruple down on the inanity.

        As to chasing the frisbee, Glenn knows certain media establishments will chase his frisbees, regardless of substance. His over-the-top pieces garner him coverage in some of the very venues he decries as anathema to fact-based discourse. And more coverage feeds his enormous ego. And the bigger ego drives him on. It’s one hell of a bad feedback loop.

        This is a piece I wrote on Open Salon which Jay cross-posted here. I caught Glenn blatantly lying. Remarkably, he never replied. But notice how he stridently condemns someone for not updating their piece when events warranted an update. And then be remarkably surprised by how he measures up in the same situation. 😉

        PS – LOVE the frisbee analogy.

        1. Rob,
          Thanks for the reply and for the link to your Open Salon piece, I’ll read it forthwith. I was initially going to post there but it seems to be a black hole of sorts, or more accurately, pretty self-contained. And, through the luck of a google search, I found Jay’s place.
          Everything you wrote tracks my experience at UT. Of course you’re right that the number of comments was heavily disproportionate to the number of commenters, but there were once a few very bright sorts who offered clear-headed dissent at times but who eventually broke away.
          Regarding Greenwald’s refusal to engage substantive criticism, it was me who should have made it more obvious. I figured you were being facetious but I felt it was worth elaborating on a bit further. Greenwald’s professed love of open commentary is only conditional, which makes it spurious.

          1. Hi Reilly…

            Open Salon is a black hole of sorts. That’s why I asked Jay to cross-post here. The chances of my piece being an Editor’s Pick at Open Salon were about as great as Glenn writing a detailed debunking of Ron Paul.

            I never read UT and only learned of its existence from Glenn’s Salon blog. In the Salon letters, there were a few critics of Greenwald who would attempt to constructively debate him, but like me, they likely grew weary of engaging someone so irrevocably and utterly hostile to constructive criticism. Larry Lessig wrote a piece that touched on this during Glenn’s “raging campaign” against Elena Kagan.


            But his faux outrage continuously brings in new readers. They make up for those that fall away out of sheer boredom from the tired, repetitive nature of his commentary. And I’ve read comments to that effect in many a place. As in: ‘I used to read Glenn, but…’

            And you didn’t need to state the obvious. I clearly inferred from your commentary that you’re a critic.


        2. Rob,
          I just finished your Greenwald/NYT post. Very well done. The debate that raged for a few years between bloggers and traditional media was usually presented like this; establishment media claimed that bloggers where only piggybacking on their stuff and bloggers argued that they were further mining the work because it was inadequate. Although the former accusation was functionally true, it failed as an indictment, while the latter was true and very much a damning indictment. So we had bloggers watching the journalists. But then we came to the point were we had to ask, Who’s watching the watchers? Obviously in this case you were. And you did the required work and diligence to bring additional facts to light that altered Greenwald’s “reporting”.
          If establishment reporters are relegated to scare quote “journalists” (as most should be) and Greenwald — as we know he did — promoted himself from pundit to journalist (sans the scarequotes), then what are you? We’ll have to recalibrate the entire classification system: establishment media figures will now be addressed as “journalist!?!”, Greenwald is a “journalist”, and you are a scare-free journalist.
          Again, that was a very good piece of work. And you’re right about “nailing jello to a wall”.

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