Archives for category: Glenn Greenwald

[First published on skepolitical.com on 8/18/12]

Criticizing the deceitfulness of one’s ideological opponents is the national pastime of the blogosphere, but it’s all rank hypocrisy unless one simultaneously holds the discourse of one’s ideological allies to an equally high standard. I wish neither to be a hypocrite nor to relinquish the moral high ground required to criticize my ideological opponents, so I feel obligated to point out a an example of unfair “spin” that’s recently been propagated by Glenn Greenwald and Jay Tomlinson’s The Best of the Left podcast. Since this is ostensibly a skeptical blog, and since a primary goal of the Skeptic Movement is to improve the level of discourse in society, this topic seems especially appropriate. Besides, this shit’s been getting on my nerves for weeks. Before I get into it, I want to emphasize that these rhetorical offenses are not representative of BotL and (especially) Greenwald; to the contrary, I find them noteworthy because they are exceptional.

Basically, the criticism that I find problematic is the following: that libertarians and minarchists who receive government assistance are necessarily stupid or unprincipled or hypocritical. The assumption being made about libertarians is that because they would prefer a governmental system devoid of financial assistance and a safety net, it must follow that these libertarians consider it unethical to make use of the safety net or to accept any assistance from the government. Greenwald and the commentators on BotL disregard the possibility that a libertarian might simply be doing the best he can under a system he finds wasteful or otherwise problematic but not necessarily unethical. I think we can fairly call this type of criticism an “implicit straw man” argument: the critics are making an unstated false assumption about the ideology of these people, and then basing their criticism on that assumption.

As a quick aside, I want to say that even if an individual did consider the system unethical, calling him unprincipled for participating in it as best he can still seems unfair. We are talking about people who are stuck in a system that they believe unethically and forcibly extracts money from them through taxes. If a thief takes your money and offers some of it back, is that charity? When forced to live in a system you consider inherently immoral, do you really have a moral obligation to hold yourself to the ethical standards of your preferred political system? To hold people to their own higher standards in such a situation is, at best, rather presumptuous.

In any case, the “hypocrite” charges that I wanted to discuss here are even sillier, because they don’t even bother trying to establish whether the recipient of government assistance considers it unethical or whether they realize that they will lose their benefits under the system they are supporting. Examples of this sloppy type of criticism have been popping up on BotL for months, but I only started making note of them when I heard this egregious example in a clip featuring Jimmy Dore, where he calls Ron Paul a hypocrite for cashing his social security checks without establishing whether Paul has ever suggested that doing so is unethical. Later, BotL played this clip from The David Pakman Show, the end of which criticizes an opponent of the Affordable Care Act for “voting against her interests,” as if it would be more admirable for her to vote for her “interests” than for her principles. Now this past week, Glenn Greenwald joined the fray, denouncing “Paul Ryan — Randian Super-Hero of Individual Self-Reliance and Working Class Warrior against government debt, waste, and intrusiveness — whose actual life is a testament to the precise opposite values,” simply because “he has relied, and continues to rely, on various forms of government help in climbing every rung on his educational and careerist ladder.” This criticism is based primarily on the social security benefits Ryan received after his father died while Ryan was a teenager. Another BotL clip from Sam Seder on The Majority Report made explicit part of the “implicit straw man” argument by claiming that libertarians don’t even know what “small government” means, and that “everyone’s a libertarian until it infringes upon what they like.” Even here, though, the central assumption underpinning all these criticisms, that libertarians necessarily consider receiving benefits to be unethical, is left unsaid.

Let me state this as clearly as possible: there is nothing hypocritical, unprincipled, or even mildly pernicious about enjoying the benefits offered by one political system while simultaneously working towards changing that system. In fact, it is all the more admirable for someone to work for change when it would incur a negative affect on one’s own personal short-term fortunes, for this implies a willingness to sacrifice personal enrichment in exchange for what one perceives as a more righteous society.

Whether Paul Ryan or the other people criticized in these clips are truly motivated by such lofty idealism is not relevant to the point I’m making here. The point is that it is a breach of civil discourse to assume the most cynical of motives without any real evidence to support such an assumption. Greenwald implies that since Paul Ryan used social security checks to help pay his way through college (and other minor examples of benefiting from government programs), it’s now reasonable to assume duplicity when he says he doesn’t think such payments are good for society. To assume such base motives with such little evidence looks to me like rank out-group demonization. Greenwald does not even bother pointing out that Ryan has, in fact, criticized those who accept government assistance, calling them “takers.” It seems that Greenwald considers this irrelevant to his point that Ryan does not live up to his principles. To the contrary, it is a critical point. I’m genuinely surprised at Greenwald’s sloppiness here.

Just as problematic is Pakman’s argument that the woman who is opposed to Obamacare is stupid for not supporting what is clearly in her own self interest. To him I say: criticize such activists for being stupid if you must, but understand that such a criticism implies that you respect only the most cynical, personal enrichment-based ideology. Or perhaps you don’t care if your argument makes sense as long as it’s pithy. This is about as distasteful as things can get for a skeptic, and I have to call it out when I see it being made by someone on my side of the argument.

Worst of all was probably Jimmy Dore’s attempt at skewering Ron Paul for hypocrisy. An accusation of hypocrisy is only valid when the accused has attempted to mislead someone about his true convictions. Perhaps Dore assumes that Paul secretly likes big government because it has benefitted from it financially. If that were the case, Paul’s proclamations against big government would indeed be hypocritical. The problem is that Dore provides no evidence to suggest this is the case. Indeed, there is no indication that Dore thinks any such case needs to be made. He simply declares Paul a hypocrite for accepting Social Security. To me, Paul seems to simply be living as well as he can under what he views as an imperfect system. Either way, Dore transgresses civil discourse by making the charge of “hypocrite” without bothering to present evidence for it.

Finally, the Sam Seder clip reveals the amount of credit these commentators seem to be giving to the supposed principles of libertarians: “everyone’s a libertarian until it infringes upon what they like.” Just as with the other commentators, Seder is unfairly presupposing the worst possible motives for all libertarians. Even if it was meant as hyperbole, unsubstantiated blanket statements like this do not belong in civil discourse.

To be sure, some American libertarians don’t realize exactly what their political ideology would entail, and some libertarians do feel that accepting government charity is unethical. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the individuals criticized by Greenwald, Seder, Dore, and Pakman are indeed guilty of the hypocrisy or stupidity with which they are charged. If so, it is incumbent upon their critics to establish this guilt rather than to just assume it. Otherwise, it lowers the level of discourse.

*****

Glenn Greenwald is moving to The Guardian, which I hope will be less infested with intrusive ads than his previous host, Salon. (I guess I could have simply subscribed to get rid of those ads.) The Guardian is (was?) also home to Bad Science, the excellent skeptical column by Ben Goldacre.

*****

The discussions at the end of the Best of the Left episodes recently have involved theories about centrism and third-party voting. Considering that I’ve been thinking about voting third-party, I’ve found the discussion quite interesting.

*****

I just noticed that the August 6 episode of Occupy Media features Dan Carlin. I’m very excited to listen to that, especially considering I think I “introduced” Dan to them via Twitter. (132)

[First published on skepolitical.com on 6/11/12]

I’m excited about Dan Carlin’s decision to step out of his comfort zone and take action to fix the corruption problem in America. We here at Skepolitical are big fans of Dan, and I feel obliged to heed his call to action. I will be supporting him where I can and observing his progress with bated breath. However, I have to admit that I don’t really understand his plan.

In a typical episode of his Common Sense podcast, Dan will identify events from the past week or two that exemplify the erosion of one of our constitutional protections in the Bill of Rights. He will then analyze the situations and explain with historical context why they are so pernicious. Every few months, however, Dan comes out with an episode of self-reflection, musing on whether all this focus on politics is worthwhile, bemoaning the “Gordian Knot” that prevents us from translating good ideas into legislation, or enviously describing his friend’s decision to ignore politics and just get on with his life. In such episodes, Dan typically explains that he knows that the solution has to be for someone to take action against these injustices, but it’s not in his nature to take the reins to solve problems. He is an observer, and idea guy. His hope was that if he could get enough people to realize that there was a problem, someone would figure out the solution.

Dan had another self-reflective episode this week, but this week’s episode was different.

This week, Dan decided to take the reins and see what he can do to motivate people to focus on the single problem of undoing the Gordian Knot.

As Dan reiterates in a blog post, he’s not exactly cut out for this role, but he feels that someone must step up and make the effort. If it must be him, so be it.

I sure understand anyone who feels this is an effort doomed to failure. At the same time, I think all efforts seem a bit like that before you start them, don’t they? What choice do we have? We sure can’t wait for another “hope and change” candidate to come around and promise to do it for us, can we?

Look…I feel totally inadequate to fill this role. But I feel as though that’s becoming an excuse for not trying. I don’t want to try. But I didn’t want to coach softball either…and my girls won their game last night and remain undefeated and are having a blast. Sometimes things turn out better than a pessimist like I believe they will. But someone has to take the reins. I despise the idea of doing it myself. But I also don’t want that wagon to go over the cliff without at least being able to say I made a dive for the reins before it did. It’s something that we all need to ask ourselves some hard questions about I think. If not now, when? Every year we wait it’s only going to be harder and more daunting and more laughable that puny efforts of citizens will work. I feel as though I have waited long enough.

I applaud the decision and the effort and the willingness to be uncomfortable, but I think some time should have been spent formulating a plan. Efforts are already being made: the Occupy Movement is designed to give people voice, and it clearly has an anti-corruption vein; and the Skeptic Movement is attempting to save the world through better education in critical thinking. Instead of lending his voice to these movements, the best approach Dan could think of was to try to involve some of the thinkers he most respects and who have the biggest reach (for example, Greenwald, Taibbi, and Napolitano) and solicit their efforts. To this end, he rather imprudently (at least for a “neo-prudentist”) asked his listeners to try to get such people on board. The result was painfully predictable:

Well, as Dan acknowledged, the worst that could happen is that he embarrasses himself, but the best that could happen is that the Knot gets undone, breathing life into all the good ideas he and other political analysts have been coming up with. In any case, Dan quickly apologized to Greenwald and put up another blog post trying to provide some context. You can read that here. Personally, I worry that it needs to be far more succinct, especially with that eye-searingly white type on a black background. I actually copy-and-pasted it into an more forgiving format.

As I said, we are big fans of Dan here at Skepolitical. Dan is very good at presenting and illuminating a particular worldview that is compassionate, enlightened, and skeptical. The thing is, plenty of other commentators, with varying styles, are illuminating the same or similar worldview. They are preaching to the choir, so to speak, with only a few conversions here and there. Extending the metaphor: the problem isn’t that this worldview is lacking in preachers. It’s lacking in followers.

One hope I have is that Dan’s efforts will elicit from these prominent figures responses to the following questions: Do you think what you do is doing any good? Are you helping us make progress towards the undoing of the Gordian Knot of corruption? How should we be approaching this problem?

My guess is that a few of them would be thinking about this for the first time, but some, including Greenwald, would respond with something along the following lines.

History is rife with surprising events. Revolutions happen, and rarely are they widely foreseen. One thing that does seem to be necessary is that some critical mass becomes angry about the status quo. Another thing that is necessary is that these people have the courage to do something about it. I am helping to push us towards that critical mass, and movements like Occupy, by exemplifying the necessary courage, are ensuring that something is done when we get there.

If I’m right, and this is how Greenwald and some of the others view the situation, I don’t think Dan will get much traction with them. Yes, they may understand the problem and agree with Dan that it is central to our society’s problems, but they might not share his sense of despair. They won’t agree that there is any need for an “Anti-Corruption Gordian Knot Summit.” They think their work is already exactly what is needed to help undo it.

Dan’s disillusionment with the utility of these efforts seem to put him on the same path that led me to my zeal for skepticism, but he has not made the last step yet. My introductory post here on Skepolitical concluded with the following sentiment.

I love reading Greenwald, and I would recommend him to you, but I think he (like Carlin) is barking up the wrong tree. I consider his work to be “diversionary” stuff, fascinating and infuriating but barely worthwhile absent the power to do something about it. The important work is in the skeptic movement.

Yes, the sort of work being done by Greenwald and (until now) Carlin is useful. Indeed, it contributed to my decision to focus on politics in recent years. However, focusing only on reporting and analyzing abject abuses of civil liberties is an exercise in futility and frustration in the absence of the power to stop it. This holds true regardless of how central these abuses may be to the destruction of our society. This was my contention in my introductory post, and it seems to be the exact sentiment behind Dan’s decision to change course and “take the reins.”

Now Dan is searching for some idea of what it is he needs to do with those reins. I am very interested to see if he might take that last step and come to the same conclusion that I did: in a society that has embraced the ideal of the rule of the people, the best avenue to positive change is to empower as many people as possible to be competent, skeptical decision makers. If the Skeptic movement gets its way and we manage to reform our education system to equip our next generation of children with truly acute critical thinking skills, good ideas will eventually have a chance to be recognized as such and to be embraced. Finally, truly good legislation could potentially ensue.

Dan has shown some signs of recognizing this imperative. There is one episode in which Dan considers an voting test, and another in which he expresses hope that political ads will lose some of their effectiveness as the electorate becomes more cynical. However, in researching this post, it was an episode from July 2011 that has me truly optimistic about the possibility of bringing Dan into the Skeptic Movement. Starting around minute 50 of “Upgrading the Electorate” (or minute 40 if you want more context), Dan uses an H.G. Wells quote to excite his optimism that better education in critical thinking skills could help. For about three minutes, he expounds on how this could be the answer to the problem of a manipulable electorate. He says that one problem is figuring out how to make this subject matter interesting, something I have mentioned might be helped along by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Dan also points out that the ease of using the internet might help us overcome our laziness when it comes to researching important issues. Personally, I don’t think it should be too hard to get children excited about learning ways to show why other people are wrong. In high school, they could then make the small but essential shift from examining others’ reasoning to examining their own, and this is where I think Kahneman’s book would do wonders as required reading.

In those three minutes of his “Upgrading the Electorate” episode, Dan also says he hopes to do an education show soon, but he confesses that he’ll probably forget. I might try reminding him. If I point out that there is already a large and growing Skeptic Movement pushing exactly the types of education reform he envisions, I think I can even convince him that this is an attainable goal. Perhaps it will even be the ultimate undoing of the Gordian Knot.

(289)

[First posted on skepolitical.com on 5/11/12)

A truly significant cultural event occurred this week in America: our President declared his belief that homosexual couples should be allowed to marry. As Glenn Greenwald points out in an Op-Ed in the Guardian, this was unthinkable twenty or thirty years ago, when homosexuality was still punishable by death in some states. That the mainstream American position on gay rights has evolved so significantly is a genuine inspiration to those of us who sometimes despair at the seemingly impossible task of pushing America towards better ethical leadership and policy.

At the center of this historic event is our president, Barack Obama, who has benefitted from a maelstrom of positive press from the mainstream media. Barack Obama, who several years ago told us that his position on the issue was “evolving,” thus introducing a new level of insulting intellectual dishonesty. Few observers on either the left or the right could have failed to see what Obama was saying: he believed in gay marriage, but would wait to announce it until it was politically expedient. Now that he has capitalized on that moment, the press is falling right into the trap of letting him ride this wave of liberal exuberance, as if his cynical “evolution” had something to do with the truly inspiring evolution of the views of the American people.

That Obama gets to ride this wave of goodwill is made all the more frustrating due to the fact that he could have made this announcement months ago without suffering politically. In his characteristically sober style, Nate Silver points out that it is unusual for a party’s leader to be as far from the mainstream of his own party as Obama had been on this issue, concluding: “In many ways it is surprising that Mr. Obama did not adopt his new position sooner.” Even if you are the type to forgive political expedience, Obama would have done just fine if he had made this announcement several months or even a full year earlier.

By waiting an extra few months or a year to finally confess his transparent dissemblance on this issue, Obama may have gained a little extra political milage. The mainstream view today is slightly more in favor of gay marriage now than it was last year, so perhaps the celebratory atmosphere is a bit stronger on the left than it would have been last year and the backlash from the right may be weaker. Also, being an election year, Obama now has a better chance of gaining from the goodwill in the ballot box. However, those extra months were still damaging. They represent a few extra months that young gay people felt more isolated. They represent a few extra months that states like North Carolina could vote on anti-gay legislation without their voters being quite as conscious of the fact that their bigoted viewpoint is outdated. It represents, then, a few extra months that our glorious president was willing to sacrifice the well-being of Americans in favor of his own political fortunes.

The story here should be that the successful efforts of the gay rights movement to encourage millions Americans to shed a chauvinistic belief that had quite recently still been deeply entrenched has finally been embraced by the President, which represents a true watershed moment in our nation’s history. I’m fine with the headline “Obama Declares Support for Gay Marriage,” but the first lines should have read:

Supporters of the gay rights movement are celebrating a watershed moment in their history. American support for gay marriage is now so strong that President Obama, who previously indicated that he would wait until it was politically expedient, has dropped his charade of having an “evolving” position, stating in an interview that he does indeed support gay marriage.

Any secondary stories focusing on Obama (rather than the gay rights victory itself) should either be the one Nate Silver tells in his column (why didn’t Obama do this sooner?) or a reflection on Obama’s history of expedience on this and other issues. Instead, the secondary story seems to be that Obama has done a great thing. At least he grabbed the opportunity to embrace history when it was placed in his lap.