Friday, February 1, 2013

Inside Glenn Greenwald’s Mind: Highlights from his recent Q&A

For libertarians Glenn Greenwald is an interesting and important journalist, despite the fact that he is decidedly not libertarian on numerous issues. What probably attracts us to him is that he spends most of his time fighting the same battles that we fight, and he does so very well.

In this post I will highlight what supporters of liberty will find most interesting from Greenwald’s answers to a recent Q&A with his readers. (Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to submit a question; maybe next time).

On Changing the World:

I would say this: one indisputable lesson that history teaches is that any structures built by human beings - no matter how formidable or invulnerable they may seem - can be radically altered, or even torn down and replaced, by other human beings who tap into passions and find the right strategy. So resignation - defeatism - is always irrational and baseless, even when it's tempting.

I think the power of ideas is often underrated. Convincing fellow citizens to see and care about the problems you see and finding ways to persuade them to act is crucial. So is a willingness to sacrifice. And to create new ways of activism, even ones that people look askance at, rather than being wedded to the approved conventional means of political change (the ballot box).

On Ideological Labels:

I won't say they have no meaning: they can be useful in some limited sense. But for me, they obfuscate far more than clarify. It could just be my own personal experience - people have tried to apply almost every political label to me since I began writing, and it's clearly just a shorthand means of trying to dismiss my arguments without having to engage them on the merits - so I just generally dislike them.

On Obama and the Inauguration:

I found the reactions to that Inaugural ritual creepy and depressing for two reasons:

(1) I can't believe how reflexively and reliably many progressives cheer for Obama's speeches and pretend that they signify anything substantive given how many times he's said things that had no bearing on what he does. I do agree speeches on their own can be important - that's the power of ideas I referenced above - but viewing one of Obama's speeches as reflective of his actual intent is the consummate case of Lucy and the football.

(2) This has been the case for a couple decades now, but everything about the inaugural festivities reeks of empire and royalty. It's pure Versailles - so gaudy and overwrought. It's particularly gross when the country is suffering so much financially. But that's precisely when people love their monarchs and royal families - it gives them a fantastical escape.
But the police state created in DC, and the marching and dancing troupes that parade before the waving Leader, and the ecstasy over his presence, are really unhealthy. The one exception was the 2008 inauguration - electing the first black president was something really worth celebrating given the country's history with race - but everything else is wretched. I had to ignore it.

Political leaders really aren't meant to be revered. It's unhealthy and dangerous.

On Politicians: Do they really believe what they are saying?

One of the things every good litigator will tell you they have to learn to do is first themselves believe what they want to convince others of. So yes, I think most of these government officials believe in their own virtue and that of the government they serve, even in the face of overwhelming evidence (and their own bad acts).

Most people don't want to believe that they are evil - they want to believe they're good - and so that desire can easily trump truth when it comes to shaping perceptions.

Her husband's secretary of state is on record as having said that the slaughter of a million Iraqi children as a result of US policy was "worth it" in terms of US objectives in the region.

The administration she serves in has its own abundant record of horrible acts. But they believe they are Good people, and therefore their acts are for the Good.

On Gun Control:

Like most policies, gun control can be motivated by some noble sentiments and some ignominious ones. I do think there is an authoritarian faction that wants to restrict guns for the same reason they want to have government control the lives of people in so many other realms, and I'd definitely include Feinstein and Lieberman in that group.

But the fact that some people support Policy X with bad motives doesn't mean Policy X is wrong.

[Reader Question] Glenn what is your view on the current gun debate in the US. I know from previous blogs that you were in favor of gun ownership in Brazil, does that hold for the US? – gregmcinerney

I wasn't exactly against gun control in Brazil. That was a post I wrote really early on after I began blogging, and I was really writing because of how impressed I was with the quality of the public debate that took place over that public referendum.

When it began, large majorities favored gun control. After they were told that the police were failing to protect them (which they already knew) and that their banning guns would leave them defenseless, huge numbers changed their mind. I was just writing to comment the rationality and substantive nature of that debate.

I don't write about or opine on every issue because I'm often ambivalent, or I don't feel I know enough to take up readers' time by writing about it, or because I think others have more valuable things to say. Gun control is one of those issues for me. I definitely see the reasons for wanting to ban especially the most menacing firearms, but it's a bit like the War on Drugs to me: I just can't imagine the government successfully taking guns out of the hands of criminals or even deranged people without very, very invasive and abusive measures, and even then, I'm not so sure it could work.

On Nuclear Weapons Proliferation:

I'm not sure it can be managed. Efforts to stop the spread of technology and knowledge are notoriously difficult. It's very hard to detect, and even harder to stop - and that will only get worse as the technology becomes more accessible. I also don't believe that countries will voluntarily give up their nuclear arsenals. Ultimately, efforts are more important to manage a world with nuclear weapons.

On Supporting Military Interventionism:

For me, this is a bit like the "ticking time bomb" torture question (though much more reasonable). There are interventions I'd support in the abstract: if the humanitarian suffering were truly extreme and widespread; there was widespread international support and involvement; the authorization was extremely limited (to end the acute humanitarian suffering); the harms could be minimized; the benefits of the intervention outweighed both the short-and long-term harms; and there was no reason to doubt that humanitarianism was the goal of the intervening actors.

I just don't think those circumstances prevail often at all. Very, very rarely, in fact. Add to that the unanticipated consequences - such as how the Libyan intervention worsened instability and suffering in Mali - and that usually tips the scales for me.

I am typically skeptical or opposed myself, however, I note the Mali intervention (for example) is small-scale, is supported by numerous authorities (not just the Western usual suspects, but Russia, China, the African Union, neighboring countries) and aims at regime stability rather than subversion as in Iraq or Libya.

The problem with interventions is they rarely stayed confined to their original structure or goal. Remember that Obama swore Libya would only be about a no-fly zone over Benghazi and wouldn't be about regime change. None of that was true.

On Fixing American Media:

That's not going to happen. That's not their business model. I gave up on that goal a long time ago. Developing alternatives to that - using the internet and other forms of developing new media - is the only real way that will happen.

Of course some isolated journalists even at establishment venues do this already. And it's sometimes possible to infiltrate those venues and do it. But as a general proposition, establishment media exists to support the establishment, not to challenge it.

I’d definitely quibble with and disagree with a few points he made here, but overall it’s pretty good stuff. Once again his original post is here.

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