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Greenwald’s Rhetorical Tics

[digg-reddit-me]As a regular reader of Glenn Greenwald’s blog, I have come to admire his legal precision, his passion, and his indefatiguable interest in some of the most important issues of our day. I’m sure these account for his now significant blog readership. He is certainly one of the voices I would choose to listen to if I were in a position of power – and I hope those in power do choose to look to Greenwald for advice and counsel. But as a regular reader, I’ve noticed a few rhetorical tics which stand out. I bring this issue up not because Glenn Greenwald’s blog is itself important – although one can make the argument that it is rather influential – but because these rhetorical tics are illustrative of the broader problem of political rhetoric in general. 

See if you can identify the patters I’m talking about by reading these selections of some (mostly recent) posts – all bold emphases are my own:

Rhetorical tic #1

Regarding Marty Peretz:

Objections to the Israeli attack are just “whining.”  Those are the words of a psychopath.

On Right-Wing Bloggers:

There is a reason why those who seek to demonstrate the alleged extremism and hate-mongering in the anti-Bush blogosphere need to go digging for anonymous commenters. And the converse is also true: those who document the extremism and sociopathic mentality in the right-wing blogosphere do so by citing the twisted writings of leading right-wing pundits, not randomly chosen commenters with no connection to the content or theme of the blog.

On Tom Friedman:

One should be clear that this sociopathic indifference to (or even celebration over) the deaths of Palestinian civilians isn’t representative of all supporters of the Israeli attack on Gaza. 

With a picture of Norman Podhertz:

Face of a psychopath: Norman Podhoretz casually calls for the slaughter of countless Iranians, and suggests that they be bombed to “smithereens”.

On Charles Krauthammer:

It is difficult to find someone with a more psychopathic indifference to the slaughter of innocent people in pursuit of shadowy, unstated political goals than Charles Krauthammer – he who lectures today on the evils of associating with Terrorists as a reflection of a person’s character.

On the Bush movement:

It is hardly possible for us to lose that “war” more devastatingly than we are losing it, and the obvious cause is the twisted, bloodthirsty and sociopathic mentality – shared by Osama bin Laden and the Bush movement alike – which was laid out with such ugly nakedness by the Vice President yesterday.


Rhetorical tic #2

On Susan Estrich:

Few things are less relevant than Susan Estrich, but this is still worth examining because it is the dynamic that predominates in our political process…

On Eric Holder:

Everyone can decide for themselves how much weight to assign to that eight-year-old episode.  It doesn’t substantially alter my view of Holder’s nomination, which I still view as being, on balance, a positive step.  The reasons for that conclusion raise some points that are well worth examining – not so much about Eric Holder, but about the Washington establishment.

On Ruth Marcus:

I want to re-iterate, [Ruth Marcus’s logic] is worth examining only because it’s the predominant mentality in the Washington establishment.

On Tom Daschle:

Just to be clear:  I didn’t write about Tom Daschle’s sleazy history in order to initiate a crusade to defeat his nomination.  I wrote about Daschle because the ways in which he is sleazy are illustrative of how the Washington establishment generally works.  Daschle is noteworthy only because he’s marginally more tawdry and transparent than the average Beltway operative…

On Peggy Noonan:

What a stupid and vapid woman this is, but respected and admired by our media class because she fits right in with them – endlessly impressed by her own sophistication, maturity and insight while drooling out platitudes one never hears except in seventh-grade cafeterias and on our political talk shows. As always, this isn’t worth noting because the adolescent stupidity on display here is unique to Noonan, but precisely because it isn’t. This is how our national elections are decided: by people like her, spewing things like this. 

These tics are rather prominent. One of the great strengths of blogging is that the reader gets a sense of what exists beyond the public face of an individual, as the sheer volume and relative lack of editing that define the medium make it hard to hold back one’s deeper feelings. When reading Greenwald’s more polished works or when seeing him speak in public, these tics are not as prominent or as repetitious as they are here, for example. 

I am not going to argue that Greenwald is wrong when he states that any of these individuals are sociopaths or pyschopaths – or that this or that individual person deserves to be castigated because their ideas are representative of a broader trend which is abhorrent. He very well may be right in his judgments – I do not know these people well enough to judge. What I want to respond to though is the pattern which I think reveals a less than objective view of those he is criticizing. 

Politics is essentially visceral and personal. Greenwald clearly is passionate about politics – and these tics reveal two things about his passion: that it leads even a nuanced and rational political thinker such as Greenwald to demonize his opponents; and that it leads him to realize this to some extent, thus his repeated need to qualify his personal attacks by rationalizing them as part of a broader problem. 

I have a theory about politics and history – and though I am sure it is not unique, I am not aware of which thinker I should credit it to – that we determine our political affiliation almost entirely based on who we empathize with in historical settings. Post World War II, for example, the dominant struggle of the time saw almost all Americans serving as or rooting for our soldiers fighting in an existential struggle. Thus, as long as their war remained the most prominent national memory, America remained largely united. After the struggles of the sixties became the dominant national memory, America fractured – as some who empathized with the police took a certain view; others empathized with hippies, etcetera. The hodge-podge of policies that make up the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” parties in America can be better explained by historical sympathies than any ideological underpinning. Our reaction to these national memories though are – in a large part – visceral – at least after we have been introduced to them as children.

It is due to this baseness of emotion that so much political debate seems to involve individuals speaking past one another. Obama’s solution to this has been civility and the avoidance of stereotypes (or perhaps the conflation of stereotypes). Obama sought to deflate the escalating moral outrage of his supporters rather than to stoke it, sometimes even scolding his supporters saying, “You don’t need to boo: you just need to vote.”

Reading Glenn Greenwald, one can clearly see the dynamic of escalating moral outrage at work. While one can make the case that any particular individual is a psychopath, it seems conventient when so many of the people you are disagreeing with turn out to be psychopaths. Greenwald demonstrates a clear contempt for these individuals – which they are often times deserving – but which nevertheless clouds his judgment. 

Seeing this at work in an intelligent and eminently rational writer such as Greenwald helps one to appreciate the serendipitous nature of Obama’s rise at this moment – with his unflagging civility and his desire to deflate the escalating outrage of his supporters as well as oppionents.

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