Friday, October 30, 2015

Glenn Greenwald grossly misunderstands his left critics, Chomsky, moral reasoning

Last evening, Greenwald decided to use a dumb article as his jumping off point for an even dumber defense of his political priorities. The activist, he argues,
as a single individual with finite time and energy [is] capable of focusing only on a relatively small handful of injustices at once, and chooses the ones where he thinks he can have the greatest impact, thus necessarily paying little to no attention to other grave injustices where he thinks he can have little or not effect...
Fair enough, though I don't follow why he links Chomsky here. All he's done is voice an utterly uncontroverisal truism about what it means to set political priorities. This hardly needs the imprimatur of anyone's intellectual or moral authority; it's completely obvious, and no one objects to it in principle. Greenwald continues:
Why do I say that? Because people like Hamad constantly accuse people like me (who choose to focus on the bad acts of our own government and its allies) of refusing to condemn abuses committed by Russia...The point is the incredibly deceitful, miserably common, intellectually bankrupt tactic that The Daily Beast just aired: smearing people not for what they write, but for what they don’t write. It’s something I encounter literally every day...
This grievance is even more incongruous with Chomsky. The passage in question is not vaguely concerned with "bad acts" -- in it, Chomsky defends a quite particular set of priorities. "My own concern," he writes, "is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state". Anyone who has read any amount of his writing knows that by this he is referring to the specific topics he has written about at length: military aggression, political assassinations, union busting, and the broader imposition of neoliberal economic hegemony. Clearly he is not here defending any ol' set of political priorities, as if they are all completely interchangeable, and certainly not endorsing opposition to anything anyone wants to construe as a "bad act".

That point completely undermines Greenwald's defense, because the concerns that he obsesses over - internet privacy issues, free speech controversies, and so on - have minimal overlap with what we see in Chomsky's writing. Crucially, Chomsky explains that he has chosen his priorities
for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also...I can do something about it.
This, too, may be fairly basic and uncontroversial moral reasoning - but it's directly at odds with the priorities of Glenn Greenwald, who focuses on issues that are not large components of international violence. And particularly given his massive media stature and platform, Greenwald is in a far better position to do something about the enduring problems of state violence and economic terror than most. For these reasons, it's not just perfectly consistent with Chomsky to criticize Greenwald's silence on those issues - it's morally essential for the left to do so.