Guilty confession time: I once really respected Glenn Greenwald. I thought he was doing admirable work defending civil liberties, although as I saw more and more of the Libertarian Greenwald, it was getting kind of ugly there. I can salve my conscience a little bit, though, in that David Neiwert also liked some of his work. One can be easily misled if you try to interpret him charitably.
So I was surprised in a good way by much of what I began reading at Greenwald’s blog, Unclaimed Territory, in fall of 2005. It was smart, thoughtful, and quite insightful about what he rightly saw as an executive power grab in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. I began citing it favorably at my own blog, Orcinus, which at that point was also pretty well established (I opened shop there in January 2003).
Hey, me too! Greenwald made a few positive comments about my work, and also follows me on Twitter (although probably not for long). There’s a lot to like about him. There are also lots of hints in his past that there is much to dislike as well. Now Neiwert has compiled a long and thoroughly documented and factual summary of how Greenwald’s libertarian zealotry does harm. Neiwert has all the receipts, and he lays them out, starting with a history of the emerging racist hate groups in the 1950s, through Greenwald’s rise to prominence as one of their most righteous defenders.
I just believe his sort of principled rigidity on free-speech issues blinds him to the real-world effects of fascism—particularly how it manipulates free-speech principles in order to destroy them. Fascists use people like Greenwald to leave a trail of wreckage.
It’s not about whether or not he’s racist—which, after all, would indeed make the whole issue one of guilt by association. That’s not the point of all this. No, this is a question of judgment: If you’re so short-sighted that you can’t see how your ethical choices wind up enabling harmful behavior, then exactly how astute is your judgment in any event?
It’s not guilt by association, it’s the guilt of association: People in responsible mainstream positions who lend legitimacy to people from far-right hate groups—whether Klansmen, skinheads, neo-Nazis, or militiamen—are exercising profoundly poor judgment. Lending them that legitimacy not only normalizes them, it empowers them. It helps fuel the twisted psychology of the far right that inevitably, like a law of physics itself, produces violent horrors and ruptured communities. Ask the folks in Billings, or in Illinois.
It’s an excellent history lesson, but also a solid argument against the multitudes of alt-righters who even now claim they are honest defenders of free speech rights…yet somehow, they always end up aiding the most deplorable, awful people, while overlooking the good people who could use some free speech too, as they get trampled by the rising fascist tide.
Where is Greenwald now? Sadly, he’s doing just that, rushing to the side of Tucker Carlson to claim the white nationalist threat is non-existent, and helping to silence those who oppose it.
More recently, of course, he has appeared frequently on Fox News with Tucker Carlson. Carlson’s record of promoting white-nationalist causes and ideas clearly doesn’t bother Greenwald. In the process, of course, he has become exactly what he once derided caustically: a “Fox News liberal,” one whose appearance on the network is mainly used to help forward right-wing talking points and destroy the left. He’s now a Useful Tool.
And now he is defending his fellow faux progressives as they join Carlson in his campaign to minimize and defend fascist white nationalism as Not Really A Problem.
David Neiwert has earned a lot of trust as a journalist for his careful journalism. Greenwald, sadly, has betrayed it.