Has Glenn Greenwald become more shrill?

If Edward Snowden is causing problems for liberals and Democrats because of what his revelations say about president Obama, Glenn Greenwald’s role as his main chosen conduit has increased their discomfiture. Greenwald has become a thorn in the side of liberals and Democrats because of his unsparing criticisms of the actions of the Obama administration . The problem is that even the most loyal supporters of Obama have difficulty countering his criticisms because they are based on facts and reasoned analysis. So, as often happens, when you cannot criticize on content, you shift your criticisms to style and tone. Greenwald used to be good, they say regretfully, and he still says some good things but the problem is that he has become much more rigid and shrill and this undermines his message.

I read this so often that I decided to check if that is indeed the case. I stumbled upon Greenwald almost from the beginning he started his blog Unclaimed Territory in October 2005. I was immediately impressed by many factors: the clarity of his writing, his legal knowledge, his carefully sourced facts, the sharpness of his mind, his commitment to fundamental principles of democracy, and above all his passion. He was clearly someone for whom ‘the rule of law’ was not an empty phrase to be exploited when convenient but something that had to be consistently upheld and fought for. I have been following him since, as he became much better known and moved to Salon and finally to the Guardian.

But has he become more shrill and rigid over time? I went back and looked at when I first linked to him on my own blog, and this was on February 22, 2006 when I quoted lengthy excerpts from one of his posts. In it he took aim at conservatives who instinctively supported anything that their hero George W. Bush did, the way that some Obama supporters do now. He said that by doing so conservatism, once a coherent political philosophy, had been killed by conservatives, an argument that aroused in conservative circles the flip side of the response that liberals make now, that he had become the captive of his liberal supporters and thus shrill and rigid.

So how does the old Greenwald compare to the current one? Here’s a sample from that 2006 post:

Reading Alexandra’s post, I learn that I have “sold out” due to my “blind loyalty to the liberal cause of sabotaging the Administartion (sic) with whatever means available at any given time.” I’m “now simply dancing to the tune of the Daily Kos audience, and it is very disappointing to watch.” Her primary argument in support of this theory is that I have “attempted to pulverize the talented John Hinderaker and Jonah Goldberg,” that I hold “the brilliant Jeff Goldstein” to a “higher moral standard,” and that I say unkind things about the “relentlessly talented and courageous Michelle Malkin.” Seriously. That’s because my “posts have become a barrage of personal attacks on conservative bloggers which were not present pre-love affair with Daily Kos, Atrios, Digby and Crooks and Liars.”

It used to be the case that in order to be considered a “liberal” or someone “of the Left,” one had to actually ascribe to liberal views on the important policy issues of the day – social spending, abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, immigration, “judicial activism,” hate speech laws, gay rights, utopian foreign policies, etc. etc. These days, to be a “liberal,” such views are no longer necessary.

Now, in order to be considered a “liberal,” only one thing is required – a failure to pledge blind loyalty to George W. Bush. The minute one criticizes him is the minute that one becomes a “liberal,” regardless of the ground on which the criticism is based. And the more one criticizes him, by definition, the more “liberal” one is. Whether one is a “liberal” – or, for that matter, a “conservative” – is now no longer a function of one’s actual political views, but is a function purely of one’s personal loyalty to George Bush.

People who self-identify as “conservatives” and have always been considered to be conservatives become liberal heathens the moment they dissent, even on the most non-ideological grounds, from a Bush decree. That’s because “conservatism” is now a term used to describe personal loyalty to the leader (just as “liberal” is used to describe disloyalty to that leader), and no longer refers to a set of beliefs about government.

As much as any policy prescriptions, conservatism has always been based, more than anything else, on a fundamental distrust of the power of the federal government and a corresponding belief that that power ought to be as restrained as possible, particularly when it comes to its application by the Government to American citizens. It was that deeply rooted distrust that led to conservatives’ vigorous advocacy of states’ rights over centralized power in the federal government, accompanied by demands that the intrusion of the Federal Government in the lives of American citizens be minimized.

Is there anything more antithetical to that ethos than the rabid, power-hungry appetites of Bush followers? There is not an iota of distrust of the Federal Government among them. Quite the contrary. Whereas distrust of the government was quite recently a hallmark of conservatism, expressing distrust of George Bush and the expansive governmental powers he is pursuing subjects one to accusations of being a leftist, subversive loon.

And what I hear, first and foremost, from these Bush following corners is this, in quite a shrieking tone: “Oh, my God – there are all of these evil people trying to kill us, George Bush is doing what he can to save us, and these liberals don’t even care!!! They’re on their side and they deserve the same fate!!!” It doesn’t even sound like political argument; it sounds like a form of highly emotional mass theater masquerading as political debate. It really sounds like a personality cult. It is impervious to reasoned argument and the only attribute is loyalty to the leader. Whatever it is, it isn’t conservative.

A movement which has as its shining lights a woman who advocates the death of her political opponents, another woman who is a proponent of concentration camps, a magazine which advocates the imprisonment of journalists who expose government actions of dubious legality, all topped off by a President who believes he has the power to secretly engage in activities which the American people, through their Congress, have made it a crime to engage in, is a movement motivated by lots of different things. Political ideology isn’t one of them. [My emphasis-MS]

Liberals and Democrats loved this stuff back then and cheered him on. No talk of shrillness came from those quarters. But you could switch the words liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, Bush and Obama, and the column would be similar in style and tone to what he writes now.

No, Greenwald hasn’t become more shrill as far as I can see. In fact, he is one of the few people who could pass the ‘switch test’. His biggest sin (in liberal eyes) is that he is applying the same principles and standards to Obama now that he did to Bush then.


  1. Chiroptera says

    Be careful that you don’t confuse liberals with Democrats. Liberals have remained quite opposed to the over reach of US security agencies. Not too long ago, <a href="http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/11/domestic-surveillance-could-create-a-divide-in-the-2016-primaries/"Nate Silver has a post about the divide in the parties over domestic surveillance. One of the things he pointed out is that the liberal members of Congressional democrats have been consistent in their opposition to national security over reach even under Obama.

    Now I don’t know what the liberals (as opposed to mainstream Democrats) have been saying about Greenwald himself. I haven’t read through the latest issue of The Nation — my touchstone for what liberals think — but I’d be surprised if they were actually criticizing Greenwald for being “too shrill.”

  2. Corvus illustris says

    … when you cannot criticize on content, you shift your criticisms to style and tone.

    Sure. The preëminent example on the receiving end of this is probably Noam Chomsky, but of course there are others. Greenwald joins an honorable company.

  3. slc1 says

    Excuse me, I didn’t criticize Greenwald based on style or tone. I criticized him as one who used to be in bed with Sam Harris on Islam. IMHO, he has gone to the other extreme, much like the former Trotskyites who are now ultra conservatives, like David Horowitz.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Bullshit. Greenwald once said that America should respond to Islamist terrorism, and you equate that with Harris’ rabid dribbling. Really, your disingenuousness gets rather tiresome.

    A comparison. I can say America should have responded to Pearl Harbor, and later condemned the internment of Japanese-Americans. In your polarized little world, that would seem to qualify as a flip-flop.

  5. slc1 says

    I would suggest that ole Rob peruse the blogs of Maryam Namazi and Taslima Nasreen, ex Muslims who are a whole lot tougher on Islam then Sam Harris is. Unlike ole Rob, they know what they are talking about.

  6. says

    From the article:
    But it turns out that Greenwald’s loathing for Israel and the US developed only with his growing fame as a blogger.

    Hey, look, they’re as intellectually honest as slc1! Color me shocked and awed.
    It couldn’t possibly be the case that Greenwald’s loathing for the US and Israel has grown as a result of his learning more over time or anything like that. Could it?

  7. says

    … Because what Maryam and Taslima believe and how they behave is a predictor of how Greenwald believes and will behave?

    Such clear reasoning!

  8. says

    At this point Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians” should be required reading.

    When you look at how authority-followers react to these kind of stories, it’s pretty clear that they’ve got their brains disengaged and are following their tribal leaders regardless of what the tribal leaders do or say. Because they’re the leaders and you’re supposed to follow them, right?

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