Subscribe via RSS Feed

Social Facts

[ 131 ] August 16, 2012 |

Greenwald, in the midst of an angry screed:

In a book critiquing the “terrorism expert” field, Jackson argued that “most of what is accepted as well-founded ’knowledge’ in terrorism studies is, in fact, highly debatable and unstable.“ He therefore scorns almost four decades of so-called Terrorism scholarship as ”based on a series of ‘virulent myths’, ’half-truths’ and contested claims” that are plainly “biased towards Western state priorities.” To Jackson, terrorism is “a social fact rather than a brute fact” and “does not exist outside of the definitions and practices which seek to enclose it, including those of the terrorism studies field.” In sum, it means whatever the wielder of the term wants it to mean: something that cannot be the subject of legitimate “expertise.”

I’ll let you decide whether Glenn is fairly characterizing the book Contemporary Debates on Terrorism.”Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda,” (my error). Here’s a brief summary of John Searle on social facts:

Searle maintains that brute facts are objective, and that social facts may be both subjective and objective. Brute facts are objective, in that they do not depend on our attitude about them. For example, mountains and valleys are physical facts, no matter what attitude we take toward them. On the other hand, social facts depend on the attitudes which we take toward them. For example, the value of a five-dollar bill is a social fact which depends on our agreement that a five-dollar bill is worth something.

However, social facts may be objective when they are commonly accepted, and when they are not a matter of individual preference or opinion. For example, the duty of a policeman to enforce the law may be classified as an objective social fact. According to Searle, social facts may be epistemically objective (in that they are not a matter of individual preference or opinion) but may be ontologically subjective (in that they depend for their existence on being agreed upon as facts).

And so no, “social fact” does not mean either a) something that cannot be the subject of legitimate expertise, or b) something that means whatever the wielder wants it to mean. Beyond “terrorism” here is a list of social facts:

Imperialism
Latin America
Taiwan
Generation X
International Law
College Football
The Great Plains
Racism
Suicide

Indeed, the notion that social facts were beyond the realm of legitimate study (even “expertise,” itself a socially constructed term), and that they mean whatever the wielder wants them to mean would be extremely surprising to Emile Durkheim.

None of this is to say that the field of terrorism studies has been particularly productive, or that specialists have done enough to separate themselves from amateurs, or that profound ideological biases affect even the best work etc. etc.  Focusing the critique on those points would be helpful and productive; willfully misunderstanding the basic building blocks of human social inquiry in order to pursue a half-baked, nonsensical vendetta is neither.

Comments (131)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. DrDick says:

    The entire anthropological profession hereby pisses on the head of Richard Jackson. The man has obviously imbibed far too much bad postmodern koolaid.

  2. jeer9 says:

    Farley on objectivity, the intrinsic nature of Truth, and the essence of knowledge, summons forth as authorities Searle and Durkheim. Do go on, sir. A rich comedy of linguistic clarity and common sense beckons, and terrorism (or Greenwald) is the least of your problems. It might take more than a blog post to make your case, but the fully baked, logical product will strike fear into any pragmatist’s heart.

    • You’re not wrong, really, especially when the first paragraph of Farley’s Searle link mentions that the bedrock is made of the Correspondence Theory of Truth.

      But (with the caveat that I haven’t read the thing) it seems like Jackson is using Searle’s terms and is playing by his rules. If that’s true then Farley’s critique of Greenwald’s explication of those terms/rules is accurate. Right?

      What I’m confused about is the language that ends the post. In what sense is Greenwald’s rant “a half-baked, nonsensical vendetta”? A vendetta against whom or what? The only thing that seems problematic in Greenwald’s piece is the last sentence in the excerpt, and it could be removed without changing Greenwald’s argument much. What else about the piece is so objectionable/nonsensical/half-baked?

      • DocAmazing says:

        I think that we should bake it the rest of the way and see if it is tastier.

      • Sorry; context here http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/08/16/what_s_glenn_greenwald_s_problem

        Long story short, Glenn is brimming over with righteous indignation, and has determined that those who disagree with him must be in an incestuous clique in pay of/service to nefarious powers.

        • Jason says:

          Which is to say, same attitude as with every post that he writes.

          • sparks says:

            When I saw the opening, “Greenwald, in the midst of an angry screed”, I thought, “What, again?” Those blasts of venom Greenwald sprays are rather indiscriminate, and frequent.

        • Ahh, that provides more context, thanks.

          . . . is Greenwald wrong, though?

          There are huge problems in Greenwald’s piece. The social facts stuff, and his claim that terrorism can’t be studied in general, is dumb. His framing of terrorism studies experts being unscrupulous/greedy/”bad” and being incestuously conspiratorial is dumb and counterproductive. The breathless reporting of a terrorism studies expert who tweeted excitedly about her airport line being shut-down due to security concerns is embarrassing and probably less logically sound than any argument he could cite from a terrorism studies scholar.

          But his main argument, that terrorism studies as a whole is deficient, isn’t that fairly well-documented? He gives several examples of terrorism studies being called-out in academic journals for failing to meet basic academic standards as a discipline. He gives specific instances of conceptual myopia or confusion (the El Salvador stuff, calling the Ft. Hood shooting, which was an attack on a military base, “terrorism” because civilians were harmed) that seems indicative of lax standards in the terrorism studies field. And he notes that their are huge economic incentives for this to be the case, which seems incontrovertible.

          That Foreign Policy piece is almost another piece of evidence in Greenwald’s favor because it’s so loose and flabby. I won’t Fisk it but it doesn’t contradict or refute or even engage really with any of the points above besides the economic incentive stuff. Which, look: Greenwald goes too far when he accuses people of operating in bad faith. But if he had said “these deficiencies in terrorism studies can probably be explained by the huge economic incentives pulling scholarship in a particular direction”, would that be wrong? One of Greenwald’s targets, Berger, acknowledges the general dynamic in a NYT piece a few days ago:

          For 10 years, private industry, the news media and academia have applied their collective attention to Al Qaeda, creating a new generation of experts with a diversity of perspectives. Without lucrative Defense Department financing to sweeten the pot, expertise on domestic extremism is not nearly so robust and diverse.

          I guess what I’m saying is I don’t like the Greenwald piece either, but its main thrust is important and has enough documentation to take seriously, and in dismissing it entirely it seems like the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. Is terrorism studies failing to meet competency standards as an academic discipline?

          • Like a lot of what Greenwald writes about, somebody else could have written an interesting piece on the topic.

          • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

            It’s hard to tell whether Jackson misinterpreted Searle, or Greenwald misinterpreted Jackson, or both.

            Terrorism being a social fact shouldn’t preclude expertise on the subject any more than the value of money being a social fact precludes expertise in economics.

            Greenwald seems to be arguing that that purported social facts about terrorism aren’t really social facts at all because the concept is so poorly defined. That’s the beginning of a plausible critique of terrorist studies.

    • gmack says:

      Hmm. Am I the only one who sees that Farley’s only point in citing Searle was to illustrate that Greenwald, when describing the idea of a social fact, really has no idea what the concept means? Ans that, therefore, his critique or “terrorism studies” (and also his characterization of other people’s critiques) is based in not much more.than ignorance and misunderstanding? Now, I know next to nothing of terrorism studies, but I can tell from Greenwald’s account of “social facts” that I won’t learn a thing from his piece either.

  3. FlipYrWhig says:

    This sounds like something Greenwald, of all people, would groove on, given his forceful defenses of Bradley Manning, victimized, as I would have thought Greenwald would see it, by socially and politically determined definitions of ideas like “espionage.”

  4. wengler says:

    There’s a field of ‘terrorism studies’?

    For me this is both the lowest on the totem pole of civil strife or a subcategory of criminology under political crimes.

    The only relevant comparisons that encompass a subject would be methods, and that is the most useless part to study.

  5. Jeremy says:

    My favorite social fact is the “Midwest”. I have yet to meet someone not from my state who agrees with me on its meaning.

    • Linnaeus says:

      I’ve heard other Midwesterners say that the state where I grew up was not Midwestern but “Canadian”.

      On many days, I think that’s actually a better designation.

    • wjts says:

      OK, I’ll bite. The Midwest is Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.

      • Furious Jorge says:

        Agreed. This is how I’ve always understood it.

        I’m from Detroit, for whatever difference that makes.

        • Furious Jorge says:

          That’s a Plains State.

          • NonyNony says:

            Folks at least in eastern Kansas would say they’re midwesterners.

            In fact, I just thought to do a Google search and Wikipedia says the Midwest is “Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin” as defined by the US Census Bureau.

            For myself, the western Dakotas are definitely “West” and not “MidWest” no matter what those fatcat bureaucrats in Washington DC say. In fact, I’d put Western Kansas and Nebraska in the West as well.

            Oklahoma and Texas panhandle are definitely “West”. Missouri is South despite being right next to Oklahoma (and feels like it gets more Southern every decade).

            • John says:

              Kansas City and St. Louis certainly aren’t southern, and between them contain a large percentage of Missouri’s population.

              • DrDick says:

                St. Louis was a Confederate hotbed, which is why it was occupied by the Federal troops. It has, however, lost much of its Southerness as a result of new waves of immigrants in the early 1900s. FWIW, my father grew up there. Southern Missouri, however, is unquestionably Southern (my mother was from SW Missouri).

          • Cody says:

            I’ve never heard of anyone living in the “Plains States” before.

            I consider the Midwest everything East of the Rockies and West of the Appalachians. I’m also from Indiana, so people just forget my State even exists.

        • Scott S. says:

          Replying to myself: My definition has always included western Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and eastern Colorado. They’re all conservative, not particularly wealthy, and agricultural.

          I suspect this is what makes “Midwest” a social fact…

          • rea says:

            And note, too, that it was not all that many decades ago that this regions was the “West,” not “the Midwest”

            • DrDick says:

              It still raises my hackles to hear Oklahoma called “Midwestern”, which was always a term of derision there when I was growing up. It was solidly western and one of the sources of American cowboy culture (says the man who has worn cowboy boots for the most part since he was a teen).

              • Malaclypse says:

                It still raises my hackles

                What a very Midwestern idiom.

                • DrDick says:

                  I lived in Chicago for 12 years as well. Culturally, Oklahoma, except the NW corner and the Panhandle, is not at all Midwestern. Eastern Oklahoma is Mountain Southern (really the same as Arkansas and SW Missouri). Central and western Oklahoma is cowboy country. It really constitutes, along with Texas, something of a unique cultural province which blends primarily Western (as in cowboy) and Southern traditions. Its heritage is clearly with the free range cattle tradition.

          • Hogan says:

            Mine includes western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is more like Detroit or Cleveland than it is like Philadelphia.

          • bob mcmanus says:

            I’m from Dallas, and I consider my self a Midwesterner. I guess by default.

            No, we wear gimme caps here, not Stetsons.

      • Tom says:

        Midwest is everything between the Rockies and the Mississippi. Partial exception can be made for Illinois at times.

        Everything NW of the Ohio and E of the Mississippi is the Old Northwest, or, from the perspective of Midwesterners, “The East Coast”.

    • My favorite social fact is the “Midwest”.

      Isn’t that out past Worcester?

  6. T. Paine says:

    I look forward to another thrilling episode of “I Did Not Say What I Just Said.”

    • Robert Farley says:

      NEW LGM Challenge: Summon both Josh Trevino and Glenn Greenwald to the same comment thread! It’s easy enough to get one or the other, but both?

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/gnm-press-office/9?newsfeed=true

      • rea says:

        It never ceases to astonish me that those two apparently get paid for writing.

      • Railing against the “sham industry” of “terrorism experts,” Greenwald viciously attacked figures such as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and J.M. Berger — analysts, he said, who had “built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism and can stay relevant only if that threat does.”…Greenwald levels several charges. He asserts that Gartenstein-Ross and Berger, like all “terrorism experts,” protect their “lucrative” careers by slavishly hyping an establishment agenda that blows terrorism out of proportion, to ensure the War on Terror never arrives “at a final destination,” and that their arguments must never threaten their “vested interests.” He dismisses their defenders, who pushed back firmly over Twitter, for their “incestuous” cliquishness, demonstrated by their willingness to “pimp” each other’s books or share dinner and drinks. Their work, says Greenwald, is “shrieking” in defense of a “personal cash train,” meaning that each assessment must be motivated to ensure their “bread is buttered.”

        A couple of questions occur to me:

        How does Glenn Greenwald make his money?

        What would happen to his career if he ceased “fear-mongering” about the current state of civil liberties and foreign policy?

        Anyone can play this game. His complaints about an incestuous clique that pushes back against criticism on the internet is an especially tasty bit of projection.

      • T. Paine says:

        If only we could get them to argue with each other…

    • Furious Jorge says:

      Harumph cubed.

  7. brad says:

    While fully understanding and agreeing with Farley’s basic premise that Greenwald is being an ass and letting his premises write too much of his conclusions, as is all too common with him, I simply cannot find it in me to fault someone for not having read any works by Searle.
    The more you poke at his moral theory, the more you find he’s pulling it out of his ass. Major planks of his argument are still waiting on proofs, decades later. Good writer, decent thinker, but overentitled professoritus out the ass.
    But then I consider moral philosophy as a field to be an old, distinguished, utter load of nonsense on par with intelligent design, so I would say that of him.

  8. quickly says:

    If greenwald had specified terrorism as a subjective social fact would that have made it better? Essentially that the concept of terrorism relies too much on a very unstable and shifting consensus and therefore there is no consistent object of study?

    • Hogan says:

      Would that apply to other subjective social facts, like imperialism and democracy?

      • quickly says:

        I suppose you’re right. But with the example of imperialism, it seems like there is a more intensive study of what constitutes imperialism, e.g., how imperialist motivations have been obscured in the name of “nation building,” or “civilizing,” or “protecting the interests” of either the imperial force or the invaded country. With the concept of terrorism maybe not as much.

        When it comes down to it Greenwald is really arguing the old “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” that, I think, many people can understand and empathize with to the point that it’s almost a truism. But this acknowledgement never seems to come into the discussion when it comes to media expert discussion about various violent and terrorizing acts that go on every day around the world. To some extent, maybe to a very large extent, the media discussion about those acts only serves to move the country further from the basic understanding that violent acts deemed terrorism have causes, motivations, and that in many cases the rightness or wrongness of those acts will be based on perspective and an assessment of those causes.

        • Hogan says:

          But with the example of imperialism, it seems like there is a more intensive study of what constitutes imperialism, e.g., how imperialist motivations have been obscured in the name of “nation building,” or “civilizing,” or “protecting the interests” of either the imperial force or the invaded country. With the concept of terrorism maybe not as much.

          I suspect there is, but it appears only in scholarly discussions, and there’s a major disconnect between the scholarly and popular discussions of terrorism.

          That doesn’t happen with imperialism because, in this country at least, there’s virtually no public discussion of imperialism except to argue that we’re not doing it.

    • That observation would lead to the conclusion that we need a more rigorous approach to studying terrorism, and suggest that studying terrorism is a legitimate undertaking that could and should be done well.

      This is not the outcome Mr. Greenwald seeks.

    • rea says:

      the concept of terrorism relies too much on a very unstable and shifting consensus and therefore there is no consistent object of study?

      I think that’s wrong. The outer boundaries of “terrrorism” are debatable, but most things are either plainly terrorism (9/11, the OKC bombing, the Bath School bombing) or are plainly not terrorism (my 9-year old’s dental appointment). The existence of “gray” does not refute the concepts of “black” and “white.”

      • quickly says:

        This might just confuse the topic further and I admit to not having thought this next point entirely, and I agree that there are acts that I would call terrorism without question.

        Let’s say that terrorism as an entity could be described perfectly. Let’s say for starters we define terrorism as non-state violence aimed at forwarding a particular cause by the intimidation of a country or its people.

        At this point, terrorism might be considered value neutral. There are probably many examples in which just this definition would apply to actions or causes in history that any of us might agree with. The problem I’m thinking about is that the term “terrorism” is typically a stand-in today for a violent act that we don’t agree with or is reserved solely for acts against our interests. Again, going back to the freedomfighter truism, when identical acts serve our interests or come into line with our motivations then we call those acts part of revolution or uprising but not terrorism.

        • The problem I’m thinking about is that the term “terrorism” is typically a stand-in today for a violent act that we don’t agree with or is reserved solely for acts against our interests.

          This is an all-too-common misuse of the term, but just as the misuse of “literally” does not change its actual definition, neither does the misuse of “terrorism.”

          • quickly says:

            Sure, but irrespective of the actual definition, how a word is used in the media and how use of that word obscures motivations and ideology and drives the terms of a debate is also important wouldn’t you say?

            This is made only worse since no accepted legal definition of terrorism has been agreed upon. So we’re left with very little to guide the use of the term and instead the “I’ll know it when I see it” approach.

            • how a word is used in the media and how use of that word obscures motivations and ideology and drives the terms of a debate is also important wouldn’t you say?

              Very important. That’s why I can’t support Greenwald’s argument that it has no meaning. Yes, it does, and those who misuse it should be corrected, and those who object to this misuse should be arguing for the correct usage.

              This is made only worse since no accepted legal definition of terrorism has been agreed upon.

              Actually, terrorism is defined in both international and American federal law.

                • Actually, as pointed out below, they arrive at a great deal of agreement, and almost perfect agreement on the core questions, while things get fuzzy at the margins.

                  This definition is not controversial in itself; the deadlock in the negotiations arises instead from the opposing views on whether such a definition would be applicable to the armed forces of a state and to Self-determination movements.

                • quickly says:

                  huh, I seem to have run out of replies in that discussion.

                  anyway, the point is the margins.

                  and there so far has been no international agreement on how to define terrorism. seems like an important point to anyone wanting to correct those who refer to it inaccurately.

                • quickly says:

                  and the two reasons for difficulty at arriving at a definition are whether state-actions can qualify and whether violence in pursuit of self-determination should count.

                  do you really not see how important those two aspects are to the definition of terrorism? not just at the margins but at the core of plenty of actions going on around the world right now?

                  I don’t need the UN to tell me whether McVeigh participated in a terrorist act. US drone strikes and Palestinian uprisings, and how we should look back on anti-apartheid movements, or John Brown, the revolutionary war, and the Arab spring, or destruction of ROTC recruiting offices, or animal liberation attacks, eco-”terrorism” those seem to me to be where definitional fuzziness can be used to great effect in driving the debate from bad-faith premises. Those are not marginal questions in regard to terrorism.

                • anyway, the point is the margins.

                  Then it’s not a terribly important point, but rather, a marginal one.

                  You really seem to be giving a great deal of benefit of the doubt to the holdouts.

                  do you really not see how important those two aspects are to the definition of terrorism?

                  No, I don’t, really. I see some potentially bad actors who are trying to cover their own asses, no different from the way Josef Stalin insisted that wiping out a group of people based on their politics be excluded from the definition of genocide.

                  Why you are assuming that their holding out represents something genuine, or poses a legitimate problem for those seeking to understand the concept of terrorism, is beyond me.

                • quickly says:

                  Well look, when you say the problem is only at the margins, it is because the US/media/expert opinion has pushed things like US drone strikes and wars of choice to the very edge and/or outside of what might be considered under the idea of terrorism. Likewise, murdering Iranian scientists and infecting Iranian reactors with viruses are also outside the definition of terrorism. At the same time, that same consensus opinion has declared Palestinian violence to be very much within what may be considered terrorism. Syrian revolutionary violence seems to be outside the definition of terrorism for the time being, as was Libyan violence last year.

                  All of those examples revolve around the exact sticking points that you have identified and consider to be at the margins of this debate: state action, and pursuit of self-determination.

                  You must see that the debate over what gets called terrorism is being driven very much by current events and the opinions of those with enough power or influence to shape the debate, i.e., subjective social fact (although we don’t need Searle’s ideas to see that terrorism is what we say it is).

                • Well look, when you say the problem is only at the margins, it is because the US/media/expert opinion has pushed things like US drone strikes and wars of choice to the very edge and/or outside of what might be considered under the idea of terrorism.

                  No.

                  Not even remotely close.

                  It’s becoming clearer and clearer why you want to blur the meaning.

                • quickly says:

                  now I’m intrigued. I can’t wait to find out!

      • The outer boundaries of “terrrorism” are debatable, but most things are either plainly terrorism (9/11, the OKC bombing, the Bath School bombing) or are plainly not terrorism (my 9-year old’s dental appointment).

        Also true of race, and of neighborhoods.

        Both of which, like terrorism, are socially-constructed phenomena that draw upon objective material conditions in a selective manner.

        • rea says:

          There’s a debate over at Making Light on the meaning of “fanfic” that invokes much the same reasoning. Difficulty coming up with a bright-line definition of a phenomenon does not mean that the phenomenon isn’t real.

      • mark f says:

        plainly not terrorism (my 9-year old’s dental appointment

        I wonder how your 9-year old feels about that.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      I don’t think so. The key bit of Greenwald:

      To Jackson, terrorism is “a social fact rather than a brute fact” and “does not exist outside of the definitions and practices which seek to enclose it, including those of the terrorism studies field.” In sum, it means whatever the wielder of the term wants it to mean: something that cannot be the subject of legitimate “expertise.”

      There’s no way that that “In sum” is possibly correct. And it’d have to be a pretty radically and specific sort of subjective social fact to be whatever the wielder of the term wants it to mean.

      There are plenty of terms that are hotly contested or vague or polysemous or shifting or abused. (Topic and comment in linguistics is one of my favorite examples.) It doesn’t invalidate a field, just makes the field a PITA.

      Greenwald apparently (according to the FP article) even got the history of the term wrong…not a good sign.

  9. Greenwald’s reasoning sounds like an excuse to bullshit and avoid truths that might be inconvenient for a achieving a pre-determined conclusion.

    Like pretty much all “Who’s to say what the truth really is, man?” dodges.

  10. Furious Jorge says:

    The Great Plains

    The Great Plains are neither particularly great, nor particularly plain.

    Discuss.

  11. Heron says:

    He doesn’t just end his argument by saying it’s a “social fact”. Greenwald then goes on to quote Jackson’s definition of the term as it relates to terrorism studies, to wit:
    “…terrorism is “a social fact rather than a brute fact” and does not exist outside of the definitions and practices which seek to enclose it, including those of the terrorism studies field.” In sum, it means whatever the wielder of the term wants it to mean: something that cannot be the subject of legitimate “expertise.”
    This is not an argument about social facts, it is an argument about terrorism as a term and concept. Greenwald’s contention is not that “social facts mean whatever the user says they mean” and cannot bear expertise; it is specifically that terrorism studies are not a legitimate field of “expertise” because “terrorism” as a concept is a subjective term defined not by clear, dispassionate criteria, but by personal prejudice and political expediency. He then goes on in the article you cite to elucidate this dynamic by first expounding on the intellectual history of the term “terrorism”, and then documenting the refusal of supposed “terrorism experts” to include under the rubric of “terrorism” behavior of western governments, western clients, and non-Muslim extremists which parallels that of the Muslim extremists casually labeled “terrorists”.
    To imply the frivolity of Greenwald’s argument further, you then go on to provide a helpful list of social facts which, one can presume, you feel disproves the implication he didn’t make that “social facts mean whatever the user says they mean”. The trouble with this list, of course, is that all of them include objective aspects: Latin America refers to a specific physical and cultural geography; Taiwan to an island that objectively exists off the south-eastern coast of the Eurasia Super-continent; Generation-X to those born in the United States within a certain set of years, and to those who define themselves by the cultural products of the US during that period; Suicide to the murder of the self; College Football to instances of the game “American football” which are funded by specific social institutions we call colleges and played, ostensibly, by attendees of those institutions. If your intention was to argue that social facts can have an agreed upon meaning without participating in objective reality then you sorely failed in the examples you chose. That you seem to read his article as an attack on sociology as a field when he repeatedly cites within it the objections of sociologists to the scholarly failings of “terrorism studies” certainly doesn’t detract from such a basic failure to hit your mark.
    As to your thinly veiled accusations of paranoid vendetta, do you deny that “terrorism experts” are employed by the same set of think-tanks, pushing the same set of policy prescription? Do you deny that “terrorism experts” comprise a small, loosely credentialed field, for the most part sharing the same academic background and claiming for their canon the works of a mere handful of authors? Do you deny that they have a remarkable tendency to agree with one another, to punt each other’s work, and to leap heroically to each other’s twitter-defense in the face of even mild critique? Is it really that controversial to say that organizations which employ the same people, hire the same speakers, push the same talking points and compete for the same defense research funding are part of a specific industry? Is it really vengeful to argue that such an industry shares mutual interests, that being taken seriously is first and foremost among these, and that as such they frequently react with shared defensiveness in the face of criticism? Greenwald does not imply some vasty conspiracy; he calls them a “clique”. He argues that their institutional incentives -those acting upon them by virtue of the positions they hold and the nature of their employment- push them towards a similar hostility to outside critique questioning the relevance and seriousness of their field. He asserts that the group-think inherent to such a small, tight-knit discipline living almost entirely within the greater DC area necessarily limits their intellectual horizons. He is not arguing that all “terrorism experts” get together every Friday and plot out how they are going to push their nefarious neo-con agenda to drone-bomb Afghan weddings and smear Muslims over the next week; he’s arguing that if they want to keep drawing a paycheck for writing specious 500-page policy papers and “studies” justifying ever greater expenditures on the military and DHS, then it behooves them to insist both on the seriousness of the terrorist threat that justifies that expense and the legitimizing rigor of their field. It is their employment and its twisted incentives -not clandestine plotting- that drives the defects of scholarship and rhetoric which Greenwald outlines.
    So basically, you wrote a post to mock Greenwald for not understanding his argument and smearing his targets with thinly-sourced contempt in which you failed to understand his argument, and smeared him, contemptuously, as a conspiracy theorist. Congratulations.

    • jeer9 says:

      Thank you, Heron.

      Next up from Farley.

      Aircraft Carriers and Their Foundational Relationship to the Correspondence Theory of Truth: Foreign Policy Edition.

    • This is not an argument about social facts, it is an argument about terrorism as a term and concept. Greenwald’s contention is not that “social facts mean whatever the user says they mean” and cannot bear expertise; it is specifically that terrorism studies are not a legitimate field of “expertise” because “terrorism” as a concept is a subjective term defined not by clear, dispassionate criteria, but by personal prejudice and political expediency.

      The leap from “terrorism is a social fact” to “social facts mean whatever the user says they mean” and “terrorism as a concept is…defined by personal prejudice and political expediency” is, in fact, an argument about social facts.

      And a fallacious one. That a fact is socially-constructed does not mean it is endlessly immutable based on an individual’s wishes; that is pretty much the polar opposite of what the word “social” means in the term “social fact.”

      As for Greenwald’s examples, if I can find as many misuses of the word “literally” as he finds of the word “terrorism” mean that “literally” has no meaning? Or does it mean that the word is often used incorrectly?

    • Steve says:

      So Taiwan is a brute fact… then what draws the distinction between brute fact and social fact? Brute fact or social fact?

      • Outside Observer says:

        Taiwan is a mere geographic expression, not a so-called “social fact” or a fact of any other kind except that of geography. The only “social fact” is that it is part of China and the Chinese nation.

      • Hogan says:

        The existence of what most of us have agreed to call an island at what most of us have agreed to call 23°46′N 121°0′E is a brute fact. That it is called Taiwan or Formosa, or whether it is part of some other political or cultural entity called China, would be social facts.

    • Furious Jorge says:

      A paragraph would have been nice.

      • elm says:

        Paragraphs are just social facts and, therefore, unnecessary. Or something.

      • The Gonch says:

        Hmmm. Long time listner, first time poster…

        I have reason to believe Heron is Richard Jackson! :)

        The book Greenwald is using to support his argument is written by the Richard Jackson I remember when he gave a paper at my institution in the UK. I tried to point out that his fairly superficial understanding of post-modernism left him in an epistemological bind (“without any greater empirical evidence, why should I believe your ‘truth’ any more than those you criticise”) simply gained the response. “That assumes I am adopting a post-modernist approach. I’m not, it’s post-structurlalist”. And that was that.

        So, I’m inclined to think Greenwald is accurately reflecting the book. See here: http://richardjacksonterrorismblog.wordpress.com

  12. rea says:

    the refusal of supposed “terrorism experts” to include under the rubric of “terrorism” behavior of western governments, western clients, and non-Muslim extremists which parallels that of the Muslim extremists casually labeled “terrorists”.

    See, this is an excellent explanation of why the Greenwald position is nonsense. If you want to study what motivates an individual to commit an act of terrorism, then a rule that you can’t talk about terrorism without defining acts of war committed by governments as “terrorism” is counterproductive. We can define “terrorism” for purposes of study to exclude state action without thereby expressing approval of the state action.

    Similarly, while there is plenty of terrorism committed by non-Islamics, that does not mean that it is useless or an expression of bigotry to study how and why some Islamics in western society become terrorists. Some Islamics in western society really do become terrorists, you know.

    Greenwald is really no different than the post 9/11 wingnuts, who responded to every attempt to examine why those people were motivated to do such horrible things with cries of, “Why do you hate America?”

  13. Bart says:

    Terrorism studies in the US go off the rails once you accept that “The terrorists hate us for our freedoms”

  14. jeer9 says:

    We will now discuss terrorism without commentary on state actions in order to avoid being counterproductive to … whom?

    Greenwald is really no different than the post 9/11 wingnuts, who responded to every attempt to examine why those people were motivated to do such horrible things with cries of, “Why do you hate America?”

    I will now advocate for the importance of distinctions by unabashedly blurring them.

    In other news, Pussy Riot has been sentenced to prison as a threat to the state.

    Therefore the charge of hooliganism can be sustained when a defendant has expressed open disrespect and defiance against the communally expected norms and the tastes of others.

    If only those women could circumvent the conversational rules in such a way that their opinions might be respected. Unfortunately, somebody patrols the parameters of what constitutes legitimate discourse.

    • We will now discuss terrorism without commentary on state actions in order to avoid being counterproductive to … whom?

      Counterproductive to those who, rightly, see the actions of nation-states to be a different phenomenon from terrorism. If I wish to discuss the problem of America’s incarceration rate, or the problem of sexual predators who kidnap victims, it is counterproductive to insist, as a libertarian might, that there is no meaningful distinction between the two.

      They are different phenomena, driven by different goals, resulting in different ends – and this point remains true even if you have major problems with the war on drugs and the prison-industrial complex.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        Plus, I, for one, have no trouble talking about state terrorism, state sponsored terrorism, terror based regimes, terror tactics, etc.

        I prefer the classification of acts to be moderately separated from their evaluation, so that the canonical freedom fighter vs. terrorist conundrum didn’t exist, but eh.

    • rea says:

      And note, too, that I did not say that we had to discuss terrorism without commentary on state actions–that would be silly. What I said was that we could legitimately study “terrorism” without treating state actions as “terrorism”.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      In other news, Pussy Riot has been sentenced to prison as a threat to the state.

      Which is reprehensible. But not terrorism! Calling somethings “terrorism” does not, in fact, imply that therefore any form of violence that isn’t terrorism is therefore justifiable.

      • jeer9 says:

        I don’t believe I am arguing what you assert. The example of Pussy Riot was used to show how definitions of acts are expanded or circumscribed by the state or those in positions of power at their own whim and for their own advantage, a seemingly uncontroversial point, except when “terrorism” is involved. Then discussions of state behavior as terrorism become out of bounds, even though neither an academic nor an international legal consensus regarding the definition of the term “terrorism” exists.

  15. rea says:

    We will now discuss terrorism without commentary on state actions in order to avoid being counterproductive to … whom?

    “Why would McVeigh blow up the federal building?” and “Why would LBJ bomb Hanoi?” are different questions.

    • jeer9 says:

      “Why would Afghani locals kill eight American soldiers during a pre-arranged meeting?” and “Why would BHO approve a drone attack on the funeral of a recently deceased victim of a previous drone attack?” are also different questions.

      • rea says:

        And your point is?

        • jeer9 says:

          You choose your questions carefully as any debater should. Your framing of the issue doesn’t make it any more privileged than mine.

          • Hogan says:

            Um. Your two questions are different in the same way that rea’s questions are different. Where does framing come into it?

            • rea says:

              Actually, one of my questions involved terrorism–neither of jeer9′s does.

              A guerilla attack on a military target in a combat zone might possibly violate the laws of war, but certainly isn’t “terrorism” by any normal definition of the term.

              • FWIW, neither the U.S. military nor the White House nor the American media (not even Fox have classified the killing of American soldiers by Afghan army and police infiltrators/turncoats as “terrorism.”

                Meanwhile, even the Bush administration classified neither Afghan Taliban who plant IEDs, and Iraqi insurgents who plant IEDs, as terrorists, but rather, recognized them as legitimate combatants, entitled to Geneva Convention protections. (Which they then shat upon, but that’s a different subject from the use of the term “terrorism.”)

                The assertion about the misuse of the term “terrorism” is vastly overblown.

                • Pseudonym says:

                  So the 9/11 attack on the WTC would count as terrorism but the attack on the Pentagon wouldn’t? Or is that different because Al Qaeda isn’t a “legitimate” combatant, even if de facto head of state Mullah Omar approved it?

                • Or is that different because Al Qaeda isn’t a “legitimate” combatant, even if de facto head of state Mullah Omar approved it?

                  Correct. There is such a thing as state-sponsored terrorism.

                  Now, if Mullah Omar had sent people to blow up the Pentagon on 11/10, when we were in the midst of a war with the Afghan state, that would not be terrorism – assuming they didn’t do so by crashing an airliner full of people into it.

  16. burnspbesq says:

    Greenwald building a strawman?

    Why, we’ve never seen that before, have we.

  17. Chuchundra says:

    So Greenwald is leaving Salon? Does that joint have anybody left that people are actually interested in reading?

  18. chris says:

    I don’t think suicide belongs on that list. Who is alive and who is dead is a brute fact if anything is; so is what caused the death (we may not always know it, but it’s a brute fact even if it’s an unknown brute fact).

    Of course there are social facts *about* suicide, like the social fact that killing yourself is morally different from killing someone else. (All facts about morality are necessarily social, since it only exists in our collective heads.) But the existence of suicide and identification of individual deaths as suicide or not suicide are brute facts.

    • djw says:

      How active in bringing about one’s one death does one need to be to call it suicide? Is refusing life-saving medical care suicide? Does intentionally ending your life for a noble cause constitute suicide? (And who decides if the cause is noble?) Does creating a highly risky situation in which you might die count? How great does that risk need to be?

      There’s substantial (and reasonable) disagreement surrounding these and many other related questions. Suicide belongs in the social fact category as clearly and obviously as terrorism.

  19. hylen says:

    An excellent post by Greenwald as usual. “A half-baked, nonsensical vendetta”? Sounds rather like Farley’s post to me.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Switch to our mobile site