I had long been an admirer and supporter of the work of these two people. Indeed, I first came across Greenwald when he was a mere blogger like me at his site Unclaimed Territory and would financially contribute to him because I found his take on politics to be bracing. It was not surprising that Edward Snowden picked him and Laura Poitras as the conduit to bring his leaks about the national security states to light, and his exposes of the way that Brazilian leader Lula De Silva was railroaded by the Brazilian elite was also highly commendable.
But Greenwald’s more recent stuff has been problematic to say the least. He seems to be spending most of his time and energy attacking people that tilt to the left of the political spectrum and even adopted some right wing tropes in criticizing them. He has become a fixture on Fox News and other right wing media.
Similarly Matt Taibbi was brilliant in the way he dissected Wall Street and the fatuousness of pundits like Thomas Friedman. But he too seems to have joined Greenwald in shifting his focus on attacking the left.
I have been puzzling over these metamorphoses and trying to make sense of them but then came across this very detailed analysis by Nathan J. Robinson who tried to figure out what was going on. Like most of Robinson’s pieces, this is very long and even though I seem to have excerpted large chucks below, trust me, that is only a small fraction of the full article that I strongly recommend reading.
Journalists Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi have a long track record of work that exposes the crimes of the powerful. Both were early intellectual heroes of mine; Taibbi was one of the first writers to see through Barack Obama’s hollow rhetoric, and his reporting around the financial crisis was unmatched. His book on the killing of Eric Garner by the NYPD, I Can’t Breathe, is a superbly-written indictment of modern policing. Greenwald’s exposes on the crimes of the Bush and Obama administrations were essential reading, carefully documenting both presidents’ abuses of basic civil liberties and debunking their lies. His reporting on the corruption of the Brazilian government has been personally brave and truly important. There is a good case to be made that for his role in freeing Lula da Silva from prison and exposing the reach of the U.S. surveillance state, Glenn Greenwald is one of the most consequential reporters in the world. He has also been personally supportive of my work in a way I have appreciated deeply.
I have long respected these two writers’ intelligence. I do not think they are sinister people. But something strange has happened with them both lately, and it’s worth looking at closely, because I think it shows (1) how bad right-wing arguments successfully pose as “common sense” and can easily persuade certain people, especially those who think of themselves as logical and reasonable, and (2) how excessive disgust for liberals can create deficiencies in one’s political analysis which in turn can give rise to a fuzzy understanding of the way the world works. (A bit more uncharitably, I might say it shows how Twitter turns smart people stupid.)
The perception that Barack Obama and Joe Biden get less criticism from liberals for doing the same things as Donald Trump is absolutely correct. It is also correct to say that Donald Trump was not a bizarre authoritarian aberration, but in fact displayed tendencies that are also present in the centrist politicians who opposed him. This does not, however, mean (as Greenwald says) that the threat of authoritarianism in the U.S. had “nothing to do with Trump,” given that Donald Trump made every effort to delegitimize the election that ousted him and would have overturned the result if he had the power. Is the Democratic Party largely beholden to corporate donors? Are too many of them elite careerists who don’t care about much beyond securing their own status? Oh boy, you bet. Is it even somewhat embarrassing to be or support Democrats a lot of the time, to the point where leftists like Bernie deliberately maintain their distance from the party? Yes. I complain about Democrats constantly.
But we need to be extremely careful, because acknowledging the Democratic party’s gaping flaws is not the same as believing that Liberal Fascism and the Wall Street-Silicon Valley Democratic Cabal run the country, and that therefore the Bernie Sanders left should feel more kinship with the Trumpist right than the Democratic Party, because they share a common enemy.
This is not to say that there must be a problem with, say, a politician like Bernie Sanders working with Josh Hawley on narrow points of agreement, any more than there is a problem with Sanders co-signing a letter with free market libertarian Rand Paul. But it does mean that we need to be clear on what the consequences of Republican Party power are, and the fact that the difference between having a “right wing populist” in charge and a leftist is, to use a UK example, the difference between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Proposing an alliance between U.S. “populists” of left and right is as absurd as proposing an alliance between the Labour Left and the Tories on the grounds that the Tories have figured out that they ought to say the word “workers” sometimes. It is based on deep confusion about what the important questions of politics are, and only seems sensible if one lets the resentment of liberals take on an outsized role in shaping one’s politics.
All the same, is it possible that anti-racist and femininist ideologies go “too far”? Given the persistence of the racial wealth gap, and the failure of MeToo to change longstanding exploitative workplace dynamics, I would say the problem is they haven’t gone far enough, having managed to change discourse without changing the social world very much. I don’t like it when leftists are unforgiving about small infractions, and believe we need a social justice politics with a comradely spirit that encourages people to grow, but the idea that the United States has an excess of feminism is laughable.
A person who sees themselves as an Independent Thinker can come to resent and despise liberal hypocrisy so much that they don’t notice themselves becoming careless and reflexive thinkers, and buying into conservative propaganda that looks like “common sense” but isn’t. They can care a lot more about the threat posed by college students to free speech than the threat posed by Republican state legislators who want to tell professors what to teach. Taibbi and Greenwald have both shown an odd credulity toward conservative talking points about transgender people, perhaps because they haven’t thought carefully about the counterarguments. Greenwald has connected rises in violent crime to the presence of reformist prosecutors like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, and accused progressive media outlets of “erasing” facts about the negative effects of reform, even though this an easily debunked myth. (Homicides have increased in metro areas but “the increase was consistent across 69 major municipalities, regardless of whether the county had a progressive district attorney.”)
Robinson also defends Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from Greenwald’s attacks that she is “a Democratic party apparatchik whose job is to provide leftist support for centrist elites”.
AOC, like Bernie Sanders, often does deeply disappointing things. But it is excessively cynical—and frankly erroneous—to pre-emptively decide she is a careerist whose only goal is to bolster the Democratic Party. We know AOC is a young democratic socialist in a hostile environment who has to navigate difficult political choices. In that situation, there is immense pressure to be “cautious,” and certainly I wish she would resist that pressure harder.
We should be highly skeptical of any politician, even the ones on “our side” and hold them to account. But it’s simply not correct to view her as solely invested in propping up the Democratic Party’s leaders, since she has shown herself willing to harshly criticize them. (Just in the past week we saw the headline “AOC Rips Into Fellow Democrats” over their condemnation of Ilhan Omar, and AOC attacking Biden for not canceling student debt). She may not do it often enough, or strongly enough, but she does do it.
Robinson says that focusing excessively on the occasional excesses of people on the left, like Greenwald and Taibbi now do, is dangerous.
And as Jacob Bacharach writes in a lovely essay about Political Correctness at the DSA convention, fixating on the embarrassing or over-the-top things the left does, and forgetting that many efforts at inclusion “[come] from a genuine wellspring of generosity that must be the foundation of any decent society,” means making enemies of people who are often just trying to do their best to be good. (These attempts to be good are frequently dismissed as Virtue Signaling, because people trying to show you that they’re good must be doing so for selfish reasons and not because figuring out how to be a decent person is often hard.)
I share Robinson’s unease “when leftists are unforgiving about small infractions” and agree with him that “we need a social justice politics with a comradely spirit that encourages people to grow”. Robinson says that Greenwald and Taibbi have locked themselves into a position where they cannot engage in self-reflection when criticized by those who were once their supporters.
It is difficult to talk to someone who has been sucked into the black hole of right-wing arguments, and who is so confident they understand The Cultural Left that they see any pushback as an attack by a PC Cancel Culture Warrior. Taibbi has developed the habit of muting on social media anyone who asks “what happened to you?” or why he chooses to focus on certain subjects rather than others. (He considers this whataboutism.) He literally makes sure he cannot hear those who make arguments he dislikes. (For more on Taibbi’s strange arguments and unwillingness to hear criticism, see this response to him I wrote last year.) Greenwald has alienated nearly all of his former colleagues at the Intercept, plus many brilliant leftists, such as Naomi Klein (who says he is “losing the plot”), Jeremy Scahill (“[Greenwald is] promoting smears…disturbs me deeply”), and Noam Chomsky (“I don’t understand what is happening… I hope it will pass”). (If these legendary people all thought this about me, I’d go off and do a hell of a lot of self-reflection.) It’s sad watching someone you have long respected drift in this direction, becoming angrier, more irrational, impossible to talk to, and all the while convinced that they haven’t changed and you must have just swallowed Liberal Ideology.
The hatred of political correctness can kill your power to reason. Look at Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker. All convinced the left is nuts and they’re the sensible ones. All uninterested in actually engaging left arguments seriously. You start by disliking liberal hypocrisy, and soon you end up saying ridiculous things like “the minute you declare yourself nonbinary or trans, you catapult up the ladder of oppression that absolutely confers concrete benefits.” This is just a laughably incorrect statement which utterly ignores the average life experience of trans people in this country. Conservative talking points like this are full of rage, nastiness, and a total lack of interest in the material realities of the people under discussion.
We must keep our analysis clear. We must not focus excessively on Twitter-based cancel culture flaps and forget the political forces that are the greatest determinant of who lives and dies. What has happened to Greenwald and Taibbi may happen to people you know and love, and we need ways to keep people from crossing the event horizon and ending up ranting about BLM, trans kids, Liberals, and the ACLU without ever noticing they have drifted far away from the realm of the reasonable. I would beg those who find themselves being told they are going down this path to deploy some self-reflection and empathy, and see if their critics might have a point.
I do not fault Greenwald or any progressive or leftist who joins with right wingers on some issue of mutual benefit. Such limited strategic alliances are sometimes necessary in order to achieve real progress on specific issues. Neither would I fault them for appearing on Fox News or other right wing outlets. If you get the chance to make your case to people who do not share your views, that is a good thing because you can challenge their assumptions and maybe even make some converts. But if you find that you are constantly being invited back by them (Greenwald says that he would be on Fox every day if he did not say no sometimes) then you should start to wonder why that is the case and that it may be because rather than you using those outlets to advance your message, they are using you to advance their message.