Barack Obama The Opinionsphere

Glenn Greenwald uses hyperbole the way other writers use punctuation.

[digg-reddit-me]I felt as if Glenn Greenwald’s blog post earlier this week was directed at me. Probably not – as Greenwald has never linked here. But reading his piece, I felt targeted. Greenwald castigated

those who invoke Bible-like “he’s-a-master-of-11-dimensional-chess” clichés to justify whatever he does

He mocks those “who pay homage to Kim Jong Il-like imagery such as this and this.”

He calls “these drooling, worshipful, subservient sentiments.” (I don’t consider myself to have anything near this level of Obama-adoration. But discounting for the fact that Glenn Greenwald uses exaggeration the way other writers use punctuation – in other words, constantly, and as a matter of course – it felt as if he might be directing his apparently reasoned tirade.

Following the links Greenwald provides, it seems more like he has a personal beef with Al Giordano of The Field than anything else. But Greenwald addresses his point broadly and it deserves to be taken seriously.

First, one must translate from the Greenwaldese. As I said before, Greenwald uses exaggeration the way other people use punctuation – so when he says Al Giordano is invoking “Bible-like ‘he’s-a-master-of-11-dimensional-chess’ clichés” if you actually follow the link, you find a rather mundane article defending Tim Geithner and insisting that this isn’t the time to sack him unless progressives can come up with a realistic alternative. Giordano does invoke chess once:

[Obama’s opponents] are stuck playing checkers while Obama beats them at chess.

Bible-like master of 11-dimensional chess indeed. The “Kim Jong Il-like imagery” is only this LOLcat inspired image from the Sarah Palin surge of early September 2008. I liked that picture a lot – and even posted it on the blog here. It seemed to be both ironicly over-the-top yet comforting as it conveyed the very real sense from that time period that Obama was confident and in command and believed his campaign would weather that storm. With everyone hyperventilating over the Palin surge, Obama stuck to his plan and won out in the end. There has been a remarkable steadiness to Obama’s campaigning – that has perhaps carried over into his governing. As individual issues flare up each day, Obama deliberately concedes much of the daily war, choosing to focus on the long-term. Greenwald seems to find this implausible – because of his distorted view of politics. 

There are voices out there that are over-the-top in their praise of Obama – though Greenwald apparently wasn’t able to find them before publishing this piece – and Greenwald makes a valid point when he writes that trust is “a sentiment appropriate for family and friends but not political leaders.” But his view of politics as merely transactional – and more important – of moment-to-moment is idiotic. As when he writes:

Political leaders deserve support only to the extent that their actions, on a case-by-case basis, merit that support, and that has largely been the behavior of progressives towards Obama. [my emphasis]

What a ridiculous and irrational statement. Politics is about building coalitions, compromising and fighting to get as much of what you want done as possible, setting up later opportunities, judging what is the best that can be gotten at any moment. You don’t judge whether you support a politician on a case-by-case basis anymore than you judge a blogger on a post-by-post basis or sentence-by-sentence basis or clause-by-clause basis. You look at the whole picture.

Imagine a blogger such as Greenwald evaluating Abraham Lincoln. (Not because Obama is just like Lincoln – but because Lincoln’s legacy is almost unquestioned today, so he provides a useful example. And we don’t have to try too hard to imagine what these principled critics of Lincoln would sound like as there were many columnists who used overripe prose much as Greenwald uses hypberbole.) Think of a principled abolitionist such as Greenwald evaluating Lincoln on a case-by-case basis – frustrated at Lincoln’s reticence during the campaign – and his refusal to call for abolition; savaging the Emancipation Proclamation as too weak; furious at the violations of habeas corpus rights; castigating the incompetence of the war management. 

Yet it was stupid – and short-sighted – to judge Lincoln based on any of these events in isolation on a case-by-case basis. Many in his time did judge him in this light – and thought he was a poor president. That is, until they noticed that his steady leadership had brought America through a difficult time – that he had been pushing the country in a positive direction. 

Glenn Greenwald isn’t simplistic enough to believe his case-by-case rhetoric. But this example illustrates what bothers me about Greenwald – not just the overheating, but the way he pushes his points to ridiculousness if he isn’t careful. There is something fundamentally flawed about the way Greenwald proposes to judge politicians in this piece. It illustrates the extent to which Greenwald’s writing must be carefully calibrated so that outrage and exaggeration must reach a crescendo without becoming cacaphonous. Greenwald’s writing is a high-wire act – and if he succeeds in pulling it off, you’re thrilled and impressed. But if he screws up once, the act is over and it’s clear that he has failed.

This piece is clearly one of those failures.

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