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’:

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.

9 replies »

  1. I share the author’s frustration with those on the Left for whom “the actions of those in Third World, no matter how egregious, are afforded a relativist justification, and indulgently excused in the name of ‘resistance.’” For two years now, it’s been obvious that al Assad has been slaughtering his people, starting with the mostly peaceful demonstrators during the “Arab Spring.” Some fanatical Leftists similarly given Iran’s authoritarian, oppressive regime a pass on its atrocities, out of their regard for Iran as stridently “anti-imperialist.” Yet it is this same regime that ruthlessly crushed the Iranian “green movement,” also primarily peaceful and reflective of hope that Mousavi as President would reform the regime.

    So, I take issue with only one word in this piece, and it is “culture,” in this sentence: “Those of us who recognise the universal importance and desirability of the above (i.e., defense of human & civil rights, a judiciary, etc.), 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.”

    Perhaps it seems a fine distinction, but: It is the regime–not the “culture” and not the people–that is “theocratic, misogynistic,” etc. Those of us who have visited Iran as tourists in the past know this to be true. And of course it is the case that the regime has its supporters; they came out in aggressive force to shout “death to America” and “death to Israel” when the Green movement was protesting the regime. “The Green Path of Hope” in Iran, a quasi-political party following Mousavi, reflects progressive values and peaceful evolution.

    If only they were the ones in power..

    • Re. your one reservation about the article:
      The author can speak for him/herself, but as such I’d give them the benefit of the doubt, i.e. that they meant the culture/mindset of the regime (not the Iranian people in general).

      • yes, i give them the benefit of the doubt, too. My guess also is that they meant “the regime.” But, I do think being precise about language can be important.

        • Okay, this deserves a response. Petra raised the same objection over at my blog. Although I’m happy to be the recipient of the benefit of the doubt, it’s not really necessary as I do in fact make the distinction you describe in my post immediately after the sentence you identify as problematic. The quote in full reads:

          “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.”

          I completely agree that one must be precise in one’s use of language, but I think I can be acquitted on this front. As I explained in my response to Petra, “culture” is not simply a matter of arts, crafts, music and cuisine. Sexual mores and the tolerance of free expression are also entangled in that nebulous term, not least because they have a direct bearing on the the manner in which culture is expressed through the arts and so on.

          The fact that these aspects of Iranian culture are imposed is immaterial to the legitimate use of the term itself. And just because a majority or sizeable minority may disagree, it doesn’t alter what presently constitutes Iranian culture. Given that moral and, specifically, cultural relativism demand that we withhold judgement of such attitudes and practices because they ARE part of a nation’s culture, it seems perfectly legitimate to refer them as such in the context of this argument.

          However, I do not for a moment think this is eternal or unchangeable. Such a reactionary view is precisely the basis for my indictment of Greenwald and those who share his views. If we are honest, we all ought to admit that it is very difficult to say with any certainty how Iran will change as and when the theocracy is finally swept away. For whatever it’s worth, I happen to believe that Iran has a better chance of making good on its emancipatory aims than its Arab neighbours. Not because of anything distinctively Persian, but because I tend to believe that the youth and those who took part in the Green Revolution have had quite enough of obscurantist tyranny and are unlikely to be tempted by the siren song of religious “democrats”. But we shall have to see. An Iranian revolution (or counter-revolution to be precise) may turn out to be just another false dawn.

          Meanwhile, the fact that Iranians have very little say in the character of their nation’s culture makes my case against the country’s miserable cultural apologists stronger not weaker. To steadfastly withhold judgement from regressive cultures which are the product of majoritarian consent is bad enough. To withhold judgement of cultures which are enforced is considerably worse.

          • hi Jacobin, I am guessing from your closing sentence that you must have mistaken my remarks to mean that I wanted to excuse or “withhold judgement” about the regime, on the grounds that it is “part of culture.” Or maybe that is not what you intended to say, but in any case, I’ll just clarify concisely that my point is only to acknowledge, as you have, the complexities of culture, not to excuse repression, torture, and cruelty as somehow “cultural.” I’m sure the Iranian people, for the most part, do not excuse it. I can’t imagine why anyone of integrity from any other nation would, either.

            Iranian culture, even the “official” portions of it, cover a confusing spectrum, from the murderous Basiji to the clerics in Qom who supported the Green Movement (and who were later, of course, demoted for that support); and from Iran’s tight control of media and expulsion of artists for their political content to Iran’s legal and social acceptance of trans persons (see the film “Facing Mirrors”).

            I take your point that your statement following the use of the word “culture” clarifies that you are making your point in solidarity to those “enslaved by a tyrannical regime and its religious codes, who yearn for modernity.”

  2. I think the author gives Greenwald far too much credit by giving a detailed analysis of his philosophy and motives. It is far simpler than that. Greenwald is simply very childish and immature. He wails “but it’s not faaaaaiiiiiiir” when the violent kid (Abu Qatada, Guantanamo detainees) gets given a detention by the teacher, or when he fails to get a part in the school play (no matter that he can’t act, sing or dance) or the school sports team (no matter that he is fat, lazy and has less hand-eye co-ordination than a new-born foal with alzheimers).

    Unfortunately, the UN has this same childish “everyone should have a go” mentality, which is why the Human Rights Council includes Qatar, Pakistan, Venezuela and the Congo.