Some reactions to Glenn Greenwald vs. James Risen

As explained in this blog’s sidebar, an epistepocalypse is “A disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human knowledge and understanding, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion; a cataclysm, esp. on a global scale.” Even though a major epistepocalypse is ongoing (in virtue of political polarization, increasing concentration of media ownership, the death of the humanities, and other factors), it is healthy to sometimes appreciate resistance to the trend.

In that spirit, I’d like to highlight the recent exchange between Glenn Greenwald and James Risen, moderated by Jeremy Scahill for the Intercepted podcast. Click here for a transcript of the exchange (with a link to video). The exchange is anti-epistepocalyptic, because it involves two people simultaneously disagreeing about important matters while attempting to genuinely understand each other.

As I see it, Greenwald and Risen each offer one major criticism of the other. I’ll summarize those criticisms and offer some (fairly light) critical remarks of my own.

1. Risen’s usage of “traitor” and “treason”

The main catalyst for the exchange was Risen’s recent article, “Is Donald Trump a Traitor?” Risen writes that “if a presidential candidate or his lieutenants secretly work with a foreign government that is a longtime adversary of the United States to manipulate and then win a presidential election, that is almost a textbook definition of treason.” Citing an article by Steve Vladeck, Greenwald argues that Risen’s usage of “traitor” does not fit the intentionally narrow definition in the Constitution.

Here is the excerpt I want to focus on:

James Risen: But the idea that if you’re a presidential candidate and you get elected by colluding with an adversary of the United States, I think most Americans would think in the common usage of the term that that would be treason. Now, I’m not saying that Donald Trump is a traitor.

Glenn Greenwald: There is no definition of treason or traitor besides the legal definition.

JR: Yeah, well, I think, I think that’s, I think you’re wrong about that.

GG: I think it’s a really dangerous standard.

JR: I think there’s a common usage and a legal usage.

GG: I think it’s a really dangerous standard, for you to say, “OK, well maybe treason and being a traitor doesn’t apply in the legal sense, but a lot of Americans think that it would apply in a colloquial sense.” You know what? I can guarantee you, and I’m sure there’s polling to support this in fact, in 2006 and 2007 a lot of Americans believed that the New York Times was guilty of treason.

Even if Greenwald is correct that Risen hasn’t captured the constitutional definition of “treason” or “traitor,” it’s odd to say that there is no non-constitutional usage of these terms. First, there’s the banal point that the words “treason” and “traitor” predate the United States Constitution (the Oxford English dictionary dates both to the 13th century!). But more importantly, I think it’s just intuitively obvious that the ordinary sense of these terms simply involves a serious betrayal of one’s country or people. Even so, Greenwald isn’t wrong that the rhetoric is dangerous and opportunistic (the latter, in the sense that we tend to use it only when the politics match our ideology). And he’s been remarkably consistent on this point. (Don’t believe me? Peruse the results of this Google search!) Moreover, although Risen acknowledged some technical differences between the legal usage and his, he was clearly making some claim to a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution (he says that Mueller will refrain from issuing treason charges as a mere “practical matter”). Nevertheless, it’s not right to pin a wildly inaccurate misuse of language on Risen. Maybe some terms and concepts are so potent that we should totally discard their commonsense usage – but that criticism is different from saying that the commonsense usage is non-existent.

2. Greenwald’s success as a communicator

As any blasphemously loyal Intercept reader (like myself) knows, Greenwald’s position that journalists and pundits often go beyond the evidence in claiming Trump-Russia collusion often gets conflated with a view he has not defended: that there is nothing legitimate about the Mueller investigation, or that collusion didn’t happen. Risen suspects that this isn’t solely other people’s fault:

[Y]ou and I are in the communications business, and if the preponderance of what you write is interpreted by a large number of your readers in a certain way then, and it’s not what you intended, then you failed as a communicator. Have you accurately communicated what you really believe over the last year?

Greenwald regards this argument as “preposterous,” and defends instead the explanation that “there is an attempt to smear people who don’t get on board with the prevailing orthodoxy.”

It seems clear to me that both of these can be partial explanations. In fact, Greenwald’s explanation could be most of the explanation, yet Risen might still have a point. Greenwald cites the (very epistepocalyptic!) run-up to the Iraq War to defend his point in a different context: “opponents of the Iraq war were constantly accused of being admirers of Saddam Hussein. Were they? No they weren’t.”

Perhaps surprisingly, I think that this example highlights how both Greenwald’s and Risen’s points are in fact partial explanations, even if Greenwald’s is the dominant one. One of the rhetorical devices that apologists for state violence use against its opponents is a dishonest argument from silence. When the opponent of state violence against X (say, Saddam Hussein) is either silent on, or minimizes reference to, the crimes of X, the apologist for state violence presents this as positive support for X. We see this all over the place. For example, consider this exchange between Sean Hannity and Yousef Munayyer, in which Hannity requires that Munayyer positively condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization before proceeding with a discussion. You’ll look in vain for similar conversational requirements in the other direction, even in dissident media like Democracy Now!.

It’s true that it is irrational for readers and listeners to infer support for Hussein or support for terrorism based on either silence or lack of emphasis. It’s also true that there are good reasons for silence and lack of emphasis. These include:

i. The object of silence or minimal emphasis is usually a matter of widespread agreement already. (Cf. another interesting example: demands that Noam Chomsky assert that the Holocaust happened, in reaction to the Faurisson Affair. This resulted in one of my favorite Chomsky quips: “It seems to me something of a scandal that it is even necessary to debate these issues two centuries after Voltaire defended the right of free expression for views he detested. It is a poor service to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to adopt a central doctrine of their murderers.”)

ii. Remaining silent or minimizing emphasis can be an act of solidarity with those who are on the losing end of a one-sided narrative. (For example, it’s perfectly reasonable for black activists to resist demands by their white critics that they condemn “black-on-black crime,” and the like.)

I don’t think either (i) or (ii) really apply to the Russia investigation. So, while it is stupid for readers or listeners to infer extreme skepticism or denial from Greenwald’s persistent demand that journalists and pundits stick to the evidence, and while it is deeply dishonest for critics who know better to pin such things on him, I think that there are nevertheless strong pragmatic grounds for going out of one’s way to avoid this kind of misunderstanding. Imagine, for example, that Greenwald wrote even a short or medium-sized piece explaining what he (as an expert in law, no less!) thinks the extant evidence positively shows or suggests. While such a piece would, perhaps, be something of a capitulation to propagandists, it would not have the humiliating features of a Palestinian being asked to condemn Palestinians, or a Black Lives Matters activist being asked to condemn violence committed by black people, etc.

Since I’ve favorably cited Chomsky (who I admire at least as much as Current Affairs’ Nathan Robinson does), I should say that I think something like the same pragmatic criticism applies to him – who is, likewise, not in the social/political position of a Black American or a Palestinian. Although it is obvious to me that Chomsky does not think that America is the root of all evil, or that terrorism committed by Palestinians is good, or … etc., it is utterly predictable that his writings and speeches will be misrepresented in these ways. As such, it takes more than just an obligatory line or two to combat this tactic.

The upshot is that I think Greenwald is correct that the primary fault for misinterpretation of his writings is with propagandists and even some readers themselves, but that Risen is right that Greenwald could (without too much effort, or self-humiliation) and should do more to reduce the frequency and intensity of these misinterpretations.

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