Alex Rowell

Glenn Greenwald fails the Orwell test

Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald

Given that both Glenn Greenwald and Sam Harris are men without religious faith, their recent tiff over the so-called “New Atheism” is essentially just a political disagreement, and thus mostly boring (we all know, by now, where we stand on the George Bush administration, and few of us are likely to change our minds on the strength of Greenwald’s or Harris’ cases, both of which leave plenty with which to quarrel).

But there was one moment in Greenwald’s latest rebuttal that jolted me out of my half-slumber; an astonishing admission on his part of systematic self-censorship and – there’s no other word for it – bias:

“I find extremely suspect the behavior of westerners like Harris (and Hitchens and Dawkins) who spend the bulk of their time condemning the sins of other, distant peoples rather than the bulk of their time working against the sins of their own country […] spending one's time as an American fixated on the sins of others is a morally dubious act, to put that generously, for reasons Noam Chomsky explained so perfectly” [emphasis in original].

He proceeds to quote Chomsky arguing that America is responsible for more “terror and violence” than any other country, but – this is the crucial part – even if it weren’t, “even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world,” one would still be obliged to write “primarily” about American violence. “It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else,” he concludes. “That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.”

The implications of this are vast, and vastly unsettling. Greenwald is saying proudly that he doesn’t care about injustice per se, but only American-inflicted injustice. You quickly see why his prolific output is conspicuously quiet on (say) the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad, and how Chomsky was able to visit Gaza last year as the guest of the blood-soaked Hamas theocracy and write a 3,000-word essay upon his return that made not one mention of their widely-documented human rights abuses.

Indeed, I’m not convinced Greenwald and Chomsky themselves have followed their own logic to its natural conclusion. Does Greenwald find it “extremely suspect” when Palestinians “spend the bulk of their time condemning” Israel? Is it “morally dubious” for Kurds and Armenians to campaign against Turkish persecution? The Chomsky Doctrine, were it to have been applied consistently throughout modern history, would have silenced every subjugated people from the Algerians under France to the Indians under Britain to, indeed, the Native Americans under the Pilgrims.

Had Greenwald read a little less Chomsky and a little more Orwell, he might have avoided this altogether, for the latter saw keenly that such self-flagellation was every bit as problematic as the jingoism it opposed. In his 1945 essay, ‘Notes on Nationalism’, he wrote scornfully of the pseudo-pacifists who “do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used [by] western countries.” He argued that this selective factionalism was ultimately no better than any other mode of thinking that discriminated between the human rights of one group vis-à-vis another:

“In foreign politics many intellectuals follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be in the wrong. As a result, ‘enlightened’ opinion is quite largely a mirror-image of Conservative policy.”

Chomsky and his disciples are the 21st century incarnations of the Britons who, in 1939, argued the most dangerous man in Europe was Winston Churchill. Deliberately turning a blind eye to crimes not committed by Americans might make Greenwald sleep better at night, but it doesn’t do much for the Aleppan baby flattened to oblivion by a SCUD missile. Such victims might expect a fairer hearing from those with the privileges of Guardian columns and 125,000-strong Twitter readerships.

Greenwald should read a little less Chomsky and a little more Orwell (Image courtesy of thedailybanter.com)

Chomsky and his disciples are the 21st century incarnations of the Britons who, in 1939, argued the most dangerous man in Europe was Winston Churchill

  • jimmy34

    "Greenwald is proudly saying that he doesn't care about injustice per se, but only American-inflicted injustice." Where did he say this? I won't speak for Greenwald or Chomsky (they speak for themselves quite well), but for my part I care deeply about injustice wherever and by whomever it occurs. But I'm not omnipotent. I have to direct my resources where they can actually have some effect. Since I live in a democracy with free speech, I can invariably do more about the injustice inflicted by my own government than that inflicted by other governments or groups. That's where the obligation to pay attention to your own society's sins comes from; it's a tactical decision to allocate one's time and resources to those injustices one has the best chance of eliminating or mitigating. On your other point: the oppressed have a right to defend themselves against oppression. They also have an obligation to engage in self-criticism about whatever crimes they might be committing, but no one can deny them the right to speak about and act on their oppression. If Americans were somehow oppressed, then what you say might be relevant. But we are not.

    September 20, 2013