Glenn Greenwald has his reasons

By Robert Wright, Jan 25 2020

This week’s version of “Suleimani had blood on his hands but the US shouldn’t have killed him” was “Glenn Greenwald annoys me but Brazil shouldn’t prosecute him.”

On Tuesday Brazilian prosecutors filed charges against Greenwald in connection with a series of Intercept articles he co-authored that, perhaps not coincidentally, suggested corrupt behavior on the part of the prosecutors’ boss, Brazilian Minister of Justice Sergio Moro. Also perhaps not coincidentally, these Intercept articles cast doubt on the legitimacy of the presidency of Moro’s boss, the famously authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro. 

Greenwald—who lives in Brazil and is choosing to stay there and face possible imprisonment, even though he could legally leave the country—immediately became the recipient of some very ambivalent support on Twitter. For example:

“Glenn’s been awful on US politics for years. But these charges are almost certainly bullshit.”
—Josh Marshall, founder and editor of TPM

“I disagree with Greenwald about basically everything and he has been relentlessly unpleasant to people I work with. Which is why I feel it’s important to say that this is a profoundly concerning assault on press freedom.”
—Quinta Jurecic, managing editor of Lawfare

And my personal favorite:
“I think Glenn Greenwald is a bad faith doorknob and I have nary a morsel of respect for him, but the cyber crime charges should give every journalist pause.”
—Imani Gandy (better known as @AngryBlackLady) of Rewire News 

I of course share these concerns about freedom of the press—all the more so because it’s easy to imagine Trump using Bolsonaro as a role model. But I’ll refrain from joining in the ritual denunciation of Greenwald, and instead point out one irony that may have evaded the awareness of some denouncers:

The reason they find Greenwald so abrasive and/or wrongheaded is at some level the same reason he’s become the free speech icon they’re defending. Greenwald just isn’t constrained by fear the way most of us are. He’s not afraid to express views that antagonize pretty much the entire American establishment, he’s not afraid to express them in a way that deepens the antagonism, and he’s not afraid to throw a journalistic hand grenade into the Bolsonaro administration even though he’s within range of the fallout. 

I’m not sure if Greenwald enjoys antagonizing people; he sometimes seems to. But, judging by his Twitter feed, he certainly isn’t daunted by the unpleasant aspects of intense conflict the way many of us are. 

There are other people, of course, who are known for stirring up outrage by acerbically voicing unpopular positions. But two things distinguish Greenwald from most of them: 

1) The positions he takes that enrage mainstream thinkers are sometimes deeply important. The classic case is his noting that the word “terrorist” isn’t applied with anything like consistency, and that the pattern of application tends to serve the propaganda needs of the country doing the applying. Or, as the old aphorism has it: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. If more Americans took this on board, our government would have more trouble getting us into stupid and devastating conflicts in the Middle East. But taking it on board would mean defying a cardinal rule of our foreign policy establishment: the establishment decides who the terrorists are, and if you question these decisions your patriotism and/or moral character will be subject to doubt.  

2) Greenwald isn’t opportunistic in his antagonisms; he’s not a controversialist or a troll. His various transgressions against conventional wisdom are bound by an underlying ideological consistency. 

It surprises me how many people miss this. A couple of years ago, after Greenwald’s disdain for the #Resistance furor over Russiagate became clear, a well-known journalist asked me if I thought he was on Russia’s payroll. After ascertaining that she was serious, I replied that anyone familiar with Greenwald’s history—his aversion to cold-war fearmongering, and xenophobic fearmongering in general, his concerns about civil liberties and his suspicion of the national security establishment—shouldn’t be surprised by his position on Russiagate.

One reason people don’t always recognize ideological fidelity when they see it is that they get it mixed up with tribal fidelity. Many liberals would have rolled their eyes at George W. Bush if he’d said we’re sending military aid to Ukraine so that “we don’t have to fight Russia here.” But Adam Schiff said that very thing this week during Trump’s impeachment trial, and it gave liberals goose bumps. They were being faithful to the anti-Trump tribe and weren’t bothering to ask whether they were being faithful to any underlying ideology. 

It’s because Greenwald doesn’t subordinate ideological fidelity to tribal fidelity that the major American political tribes view him with suspicion; he’s not a reliable ally for any of them. Which is one reason so many people this week prefaced their defense of Greenwald with reservations about him.

Another reason is his legendary offensiveness. He talks about his ideological adversaries with—how should I put it?—the occasional lapse of diplomatic finesse. “Glenn Greenwald has called me a ‘deceitful’ mouthpiece of the national security state,” began a tweet from Susan Hennessey that went on to call Brazil’s charges against him “an outrageous assault on press freedom that should alarm every American.” 

In 2015, talking with Greenwald on my podcast The Wright Show, I asked him about his polemical style. Why had he chosen to illustrate a recent article with anti-Semitic cartoons that some readers predictably got triggered by? Why doesn’t he include the “to be sure” paragraphs that might short-circuit incendiary misinterpretation? Why does he sometimes attribute unflattering motivations to people? His answers defy easy summary, but it was clear that he’s given these questions a lot of thought, and he’s convinced that his style serves to advance the debates we need to have. Whether you like his approach or not, he has his reasons.  

If you want to watch the video version of our conversation, it’s here, on the web site; the above questions start a bit after the 20-minute mark. Another relevant resource is on the other video channel I run, It’s a short mashup of people answering the question, “If you could go back and give advice to your 21-year-old self, what would it be?” Greenwald came last, and his answer was short: “Almost all of your fears are unreal.”

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