Sean Wilentz’s attack on Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange

Reader JS has sent along a link to a long article in the New Republic by Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz ominously titled Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange If You Knew What They Really Thought?. Wilentz seems to imply that the three of them have some secret agenda that Wilentz has somehow managed to unearth that enables him to read their minds and bring to light their true intent.

But on reading the article you find that almost all of the material is well known to those of us who have been following the issue fairly closely. Wilentz’s main concern seems to be that the NSA revelations and whistleblowing in general seem to be attracting a coalition from the anti-authoritarian left and right, and the intent of his piece is to convince liberals that they need to abandon them and come back into the fold of the Democratic party.

His argument is a familiar one, that Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange share some libertarian leanings and have formed an alliance to plot against liberal democracy that makes all their actions suspect, and that while there have been some excesses by the NSA and the government, they are in fact good people and we should support them.

Kevin Gosztola, Henry Farrell, and Justin Raimondo have responded with sharply critical pieces about Wilentz’s thesis.

As Gosztola says:

Few personify the death of the liberal class in the United States like writer and historian Sean Wilentz, which is why it is baffling to read an entire polemical essay from him in The New Republic on why liberals should recognize that Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden “despise the liberal state” and aim to “wound” it through leaks.

Journalist Chris Hedges has written that the current liberal class is “expected to mask the brutality of imperial war and corporate malfeasance by deploring the most egregious excesses whiles studiously refusing to question the legitimacy of the power elite’s actions and structures. When dissidents step outside these boundaries, they become pariahs. Specific actions can be criticized, but motives, intentions, and the moral probity of the power elite cannot be questioned.”

In Wilentz’s most recent piece, it is clear he is worried that liberals might actually support the efforts of Assange, Greenwald or Snowden to challenge the excesses of the national security state. He loathes the fact that the actions of these men have been heralded by many, despite the fact that their critiques of the power elite’s “motives, intentions and the moral probity” of them do not comport with his ideology. And so, his answer is to write a hackneyed piece of journalism that delves into what he perceives as the “motives, intention and the moral probity” of Assange, Greenwald and Snowden in order to discredit them in the eyes of liberals.

As these three writers all point out, the views and actions of people like Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange on issues unrelated to the revelations of actions of the national security state are relevant if we are discussing things that impinge on them. But why would Greenwald’s past views on immigration or Snowden’s views on guns or welfare have any relevance to their role in disseminating the NSA documents?

This is again an attempt to divide people along tribal lines based on superficial political labels (something that serves the ruling class by dividing their opponents) rather than by where they stand on specific issues.


  1. says

    Wilentz is a “historian” yet writes in terms of political ‘right’ and ‘left’?? I am very supicious of that (having grown up in a household headed by a history professor) – my experience is that “Real Historians”(tm) are more nuanced than that, because they understand that such political divisions are largely convenient shorthand used to demonize one side or another. My experience with historians is that they try to analyze events in a broader sense than the prevailing short-term politics. It’s sort of like if you heard someone describe themselves as an “evolutionary biologist” then start talking about “kinds” and “complexity” … In other words I suspect Wilentz is a political hack, not a historian. Or, perhaps a historian who has decided to play at being a political hack.

    Attempting to demonize Snowden as “anti-authoritarian” rather misses the point that when authority begins to overextend itself, “anti-authoritarian” behavior becomes the default from everyone who is not busy licking the boots of the elite.

  2. Glenn says

    Wilentz is a hysterian.

    I know what he would be thinking if his brain weren’t locked up in an hysteria induced anxiety attack: The end of the world is coming if everyone is not deprived of their right to privacy.

  3. Jonny Vincent says

    The end of the world is coming if everyone is not deprived of their right to privacy.

    Logic suggests that’s the only thing that could save the world. A Right to Privacy is a Right to Conceal and a Right to Conceal is a Right to Lie. When you talk about concealment, you simply have to talk about motive. Inexplicably, no one does.

    A world without secrets would be world without war, misery, suffering, abuses of power, power itself, malice or conflict. Everyone would be forced to be humane and honest and before we’d have time to recover from the PTSD suppressed by infant amnesia, our great-grandchildren will have taken us into the stars.

    Or if we look at it in reverse, since the Invention of Lies circa 4000 BC, 106,000,000,000 humans have suffered and died fighting each other to survive their cannibalistic parents’ need for exclusive love (slavery). That’s 106 billion minds not banked for the benefit of future generations. In a world that only spoke truth selfishly, we’d have the exponential power of 106 billion minds banked.

    Look at what was achieved in the 20th century in a world still choking on their parents’ selfless, needy greed and avarice. A few parents told a few children some truth and we went from horse-drawn buggies to landing on the moon. 6000 years of selfish truth and my mind cannot even comprehend the power…We’re the only known deity species in the universe but the mothers of humanity need love because objectified girls are made to sell themselves by objectified women who fear competition for their male slaves so what can you do.

    No one has a Right to conceal or a Right to Objectify Children or a Right to Traumatise Children by shaming their biological purity. We are the perverts, not them. They are pure and brilliant. We are putrid and broken. Parents agree to disagree.

  4. readysf says

    I have been reading Greenwald for a long time. I may not agree completely with everything he says, but he is a profoundly analytical and rational thinker.

    I do not put labels on people.

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