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The function of a gadfly

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Glenn Greenwald wrote a post this morning which was in part about the failure of the progressive blogosphere to condemn the ongoing murder of Iranian scientists, given the very strong possibility that these murders are being carried out by Israel, and the less strong but still significant odds that the U.S. has some involvement in these killings, ranging anywhere from direct participation to tacit approval.

Now on one level this criticism can easily be seen as unfair. As Greenwald himself has noted, not every progressive blogger is obligated to comment on whatever issue any particular progressive blogger considers the most important issue of the moment. Furthermore, Greenwald can be read to be implying that certain prominent bloggers, such as Scott, are failing to comment on this particular story because they’re running interference for the Obama administration, which would no doubt prefer as little attention as possible be given this story, at least on the left side of the political spectrum.

That of course is an unpleasant implication, and I know I would be quite irritated if it were directed at me, especially to the extent I believed the implication was false. (Scott responded promptly and straightforwardly to that potential implication). Still, what Greenwald is doing in cases such as this one seems to be valuable, despite the potential or real unfairness generated by his rhetorical style. Here’s why: Until I read Greenwald’s post this morning, I had been paying almost no attention to the ongoing killing of Iranian scientists. Now I certainly hadn’t avoided writing about the story consciously: I simply hadn’t paid attention to it.

This, when I reflect on it, was a real mistake on my part. After all, five years ago I was involved in a very public and nasty exchange with Glenn Reynolds, when he merely advocated doing something which, for the last couple of years, has actually been happening. In other words, this is a story I should have followed closely, and commented on, given the (justified) outrage I expressed five years earlier. Why didn’t I?

The answer is uncomfortable. I didn’t follow this story because, at bottom, this story puts “my team” in a bad light. Now again, this wasn’t a conscious decision. I’ve leveled plenty of criticisms at the Obama administration, on all sorts of issues. But I have no doubt whatsoever that, if the serial murder of Iranian scientists had been happening in the course of the McCain administration, I would have been all over this story, in part because, given the sources of opinion I read regularly, I would have been much more aware of that story, which, for the same reasons I haven’t been paying attention to it, hasn’t been prominently featured by those sources.

In its most extreme form, this kind of selective bias is manifested by a willingness to openly praise acts that are substantially identical to acts one condemned in the strongest terms when they were carried out by one’s political opponents:

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. The Liberal News Chronicle published, as an example of shocking barbarity, photographs of Russians hanged by the Germans, and then a year or two later published with warm approval almost exactly similar photographs of Germans hanged by the Russians.

These sorts of extreme examples of intellectual inconsistency are of course especially common in war time (which is no doubt why the celebrants of perpetual war are most prone to engage in them). On a less extreme level, everyone is at the very least prone to pay considerably less attention to shabby or shameful or even seriously criminal behavior when it is perpetrated by one’s friends and allies rather than one’s enemies and opponents. Glenn Greenwald’s hectoring of liberal bloggers to maintain intellectual and moral consistency without regard to who’s political fortunes are being advanced or harmed is valuable precisely because all of us are inclined not to do so.

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