The Rage, Relativism and Racism of Glenn Greenwald

The following was originally published at the blog Jacobinism, and is being reposted here with the author’s permission

“Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,

All centuries but this, and every country but his own…”
– W. S. Gilbert 

SHOT 6/8/08The ACLU annual membership conference in Washington, D.C.

For a commentator who gets as exercised about the killing of innocent Muslims as Glenn Greenwald does, he has had precious little to say about the ongoing catastrophe in Syria. That is, until Monday 6 May. 

After more than two years of an increasingly vicious civil war that has so far claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000 Syrians, events took a particularly ugly turn last week. On Saturday 4, news began to filter out of sectarian massacres committed by regime loyalists over the previous two days in the coastal city of Banias and the neighbouring village of al-Bayda. Graphic pictures depicting the piled corpses of men, women and small children were greeted with a wave of revulsion amid unconfirmed estimates that between 60 and 100 people had been murdered at both sites. Meanwhile, reports and allegations that the regime had begun using sarin and other unspecified chemical agents against rebel forces and civilians continued to emerge, intensifying the debate about whether or not Obama’s “red line” had been crossed and what on earth to do about it if it had.

Then on Sunday March 5, Israel apparently rocketed government positions inside Syria, seemingly with impunity and from Lebanese airspace. Although Israel has not taken public responsibility for the attack, it was widely reported that the targeted strikes were aimed at the destruction of shipments of Fateh-110 rockets being held in and around Damascus, en route from Iran to Lebanese Shi’ite terror group Hezbollah. Dozens of soldiers loyal to Assad’s brutal Ba’athist dictatorship were killed in the process.

After more than two years of silence on the subject Greenwald evidently decided that a red line of his own had been crossed and that enough was enough. So he drew himself up, approached his podium at The Guardian and declared:

Few things are more ludicrous than the attempt by advocates of US and Israeli militarism to pretend that they’re applying anything remotely resembling “principles”. Their only cognizable “principle” is rank tribalism: My Side is superior, and therefore we are entitled to do things that Our Enemies are not.

Greenwald, it transpired to the surprise of no-one, was not particularly interested in the horrors of the Syrian civil war – neither the butchery unleashed by Assad’s regime in Banias and al-Bayda nor the appalling human rights crisis afflicting much of the country warranted so much as a murmur.

What irks him is that those seeking to defend or justify Israel’s very brief and limited involvement in the conflict should presume to offer a moral justification for her behaviour when, so far as Greenwald can tell, their reasoning is nothing more honourable than a naked and single-minded chauvinism rooted in an unjustifiable Western exceptionalism.

In support of this contention, Greenwald defies those he calls “Israeli defenders” to defend equivalent (theoretical) actions taken by Iran or Syria on the same grounds of self-interest, or to condemn Israel’s nuclear arsenal with the same vehemence reserved for Iran’s ambitions. Stretching the already elastic logic of this argument to its limit, he even implies that those who defend Israel while denouncing Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan (the victims of whom Greenwald describes as “incidental”) are guilty of double-standards.

The use of this kind of shabby relativist equivalence to denigrate Western democracies and excuse the actions of terrorists and dictators is par for the course on certain sections of the self-proclaimed anti-Imperialist Left. But, oddly, Greenwald is indignant that anyone should presume to characterise his views in this way. “The ultimate irony,” he complains…

…is that those [like Greenwald] who advocate for the universal application of principles to all nations are usually tarred with the trite accusatory slogan of “moral relativism”. But the real moral relativists are those who believe that the morality of an act is determined not by its content but by the identity of those who commit them: namely, whether it’s themselves or someone else doing it….[thus] Israel and the US (and its dictatorial allies in Riyadh and Doha) have the absolute right to bomb other countries or arm rebels in those countries if they perceive doing so is necessary to stop a threat but Iran and Syria (and other countries disobedient to US dictates) do not. This whole debate would be much more tolerable if it were at least honestly acknowledged that what is driving the discussion are tribalistic notions of entitlement and nothing more noble.

Hmm. It seems to me that the only reason Greenwald is perplexed by accusations of relativism is that he doesn’t understand what the term means. Moral relativism holds that there is no objective means of deciding right and wrong so, since countries and their respective cultures cannot be judged by any meaningfully objective standard, they must simply be understood as different, rather than comparatively better or worse.

Pursuing this logic, then, a culture which tortures and imprisons dissidents is no worse than one which protects free assembly and expression; a culture which publicly hangs homosexuals from cranes is no worse than one which enshrines their equality and rights as individuals in law; a culture which confines women to the home and denies them the vote is no worse than one in which they run companies and head governments. Lest this sounds like a caricature, it ought to be remembered that Michel Foucault eulogised the Iranian revolution on the grounds that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s nascent theocracy was simply a different (and in many ways superior) “regime of truth”.

Greenwald’s steadfast refusal to arrange countries into a moral hierarchy explicitly endorses the complete suspension of moral judgement required by the above. As does his conclusion that there can be no reason for assigning cultural superiority to free societies, nor justifying acts of violence committed in their defence, besides an “adolescent, self-praising, tribalistic license” on the part of those fortunate enough to live in them. To Greenwald, it seems, arguments about cultural superiority are no better than a debate between competing, morally indistinguishable subjectivities, each as valid or invalid as the next.It is this thinking that allows Greenwald to endorse Mehdi Hasan’s assertion of a direct equivalence between a theocracy aiding a genocidal dictator by shelling rebels to further its own interests, with the actions of a democracy safeguarding its security and the lives of its citizens from Hezbollah rockets:
tweetShiraz Maher is correct to identify this as tawdry relativism. Greenwald, on the other hand, misdescribes Hasan’s position (and by extension, his own) as universalist because it seems he doesn’t understand what that term means either.

The universal application of moral and ethical principles requires the organisation of cultures into a moral hierarchy, according to the degree to which objectively good precepts and values are upheld. These might include a commitment to rationalist (and therefore secular) government; the protection of individual human rights, irrespective of race, gender or sexuality; the defence of free expression and free assembly and a free press; the independence of judicial process and so on.

Those of us who recognise the universal importance and desirability of the above, have little difficulty in ascribing inferiority to a culture that is – conversely – obscurantist, theocratic, misogynistic, racist and oppressive, such as that of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The recognition of this fact is the most elementary form of solidarity one can show to its embattled populace, enslaved by a tyrannical regime and its religious codes, who yearn for modernity.

However, it must be noted that, elsewhere, Greenwald has written passionately and extensively in defence of free speech. This is odd given the above, since it suggests an acknowledgement on his part that (a) freedom of expression has an axiomatic, objective moral worth and that (b) consequently, a society in which expression is restricted is inferior to one in which it is comparably free.

Greenwald has also criticised the US detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on the grounds that they deny those held there the protection of the rule of law and due process. But if these are markers by which it is possible to judge the American administration’s commitment to human rights, why are they not also suitable markers by which to judge that of the Iranian or Syrian regimes, whose behaviour by these standards is demonstrably much worse? And if these markers are deemed legitimate points of universalist comparison by Greenwald, then why not others such as the emancipation of women, and the protection of LGBTQ rights? And why the reluctance to judge, and where necessary indict, cultures accordingly?

One will search Greenwald’s writing for coherence in vain because, although he espouses moral relativism when it suits his agenda, as we’ve just seen, he’ll vehemently disown it with his very next breath. His is not a thoughtful, principled commitment to a philosophy he’s prepared to defend or apply consistently. Rather, his geopolitical outlook might be best described as a half-understood kind of dime-store Third Worldism; a gruesome combination of a thoroughgoing Western masochism with an ostensible compassion for the wretched of the earth that masks the same racist condescension and contempt typified by the worst kind of colonialist paternalism.

Thus, the planet is divided between the sentimentalised poor of the Global South and the brutal, arrogant power of the modern West. The former struggle valiantly beneath the jackboot of the latter’s economic and military hegemony, yet are ennobled by a humble commitment to primitive – and often deeply regressive – traditions, and confinement within a pitiable victimhood. Any resistance to the hegemonic power of the West or rejection of modernity is therefore held to be, by its very nature, progressive and laudable, irrespective of how barbarous the groups/individuals/regimes in question, or how retrogressive their aims. As Greenwald’s firm opposition to the French intervention in Mali and his unbending defence of the Iranian theocracy’s right to apocalyptic weaponry demonstrate, there seems to be no third world regime or militia repellent or cruel enough that he would deny them his solidarity should they come into conflict with the West’s democracies.

Greenwald can only withhold judgement of Iran’s dismal human rights record or Syria’s campaign of sectarian slaughter by affirming that Persians and Arabs are simply not culturally suited to the liberties and protections derived from Enlightenment thought to which Westerners rightly feel they are entitled. Instead, they must be perceived as childlike, simple and sometimes savage peoples whose cultural proclivities demonstrate a preference for subjugation, violence, injustice and fear over liberty and peace, and who are incapable of understanding egalitarian concepts of human rights due to their uniquely ‘Western’ character.

Greenwald is of course free to believe this if he wishes, but I can hardly think of a more reactionary or racist point of view. And this manichean thinking is only made possible by the application of an indefensible double-standard, one which demands that the actions of the West be judged according to a quasi-Biblical moral absolutism, whilst the actions of those in Third World, no matter how egregious, are afforded a relativist justification, and indulgently excused in the name of ‘resistance’:
tweet

In the end, for all his righteous fulminating about injustice, what animates Greenwald is not a sincere and fair-minded commitment to universalist principles and norms, but simply a myopic and visceral hatred of the West, America and – especially – Israel. This is self-criticism, unfettered by perspective or coherent moral philosophy, and thereby transformed into a disabling self-loathing, manifested in unseemly displays of narcissistic self-flagellation.

With Israel, as with the West in general, no concession will ever be enough; no achievement will ever be deemed praiseworthy; no atonement, no matter how abject, will be sufficient. And if Israel should fall to her enemies, Greenwald would doubtless affect a tone of gravest sorrow and announce that, alas, once again, the Jews had brought it on themselves, just as America had done when she was assaulted by theocratic fascists on 9/11. But on that count, for the time being – at least as long as Israel possesses nuclear weapons with which to safeguard her security and survival, and the anti-Semitic theocracy in Iran does not – Greenwald’s spiteful schadenfreude will have to wait.

Those who advance the contemptible argument that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians demonstrates that Jews have ‘learned nothing’ from Auschwitz contrive to ignore the evidence before their eyes. It is surely because of this experience more than any other that Israel was established as a secular parliamentary democracy in which minority rights and free expression remain protected to this day. This despite being surrounded by peoples and regimes hostile to her very existence since inception, not one of which comes close to affording its citizens the freedoms Israel does.

Which is not to say I agree with everything Israel or America or any other democracy does. Rather that as an emancipatory model, free and democratic societies possess a worth above the immediate benefits they bestow on their own citizens and beyond the reach of the crimes they commit. The space provided for dissent and disputation allows for self-criticism and evolution; political accountability and an independent judiciary provide oversight, punishment and redress. The separation of religion and the State ensure policy will be decided on the basis of reason and argument rather than the enforcing of religious dogma. It is this framework that has allowed the West’s democracies to evolve and grow in ways that closed societies cannot, thereby facilitating progress.

The regimes in Iran and Syria may make no such claim in defence of their survival. On the contrary, their very existence ought to be an offence to anyone who cares about individual liberty, as Glenn Greenwald claims to do. And it is for this reason that self-interested actions taken by these regimes to further their interests are not remotely morally equivalent to those taken by democracies to protect their people. That is, unless, like Glenn Greenwald, you happen to be a moral relativist.
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