How Glenn Greenwald lost his way
He’s a case study in the deleterious consequences of selective skepticism
I’ve never been the biggest fan of journalist (and fellow Substacker) Glenn Greenwald, but I’ve always respected him. An impassioned lawyer who writes laser-focused prose, like a prosecutor on the warpath, he never makes a concession to the other side and never risks planting reasonable doubt about his own. Because his side isn’t mine, I haven’t thought of him as an ally or kindred spirit, though I’ve admired his intellect, courage, and integrity.
But things have gotten a little weird over the past few years.
Greenwald has typically been considered a man of the left, and for good reason. He savaged the administration of George W. Bush for years over the War on Terror and acted as a journalistic conduit for publication of Edward Snowden’s leaks of highly classified information from the National Security Agency about surveillance in the U.S. and around the world, provoking the fury of the intelligence community. He’s championed Bernie Sanders, and regularly come to the defense of the progressive members of “The Squad” in Congress. In Brazil, where he lives, Greenwald has been a big enough nuisance for the right-wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro that he’s been hounded by prosecutors there. He’s also played an important role in getting charges dropped against former left-wing Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Yet in the United States in recent years, Greenwald has reserved his harshest comments, not for Donald Trump or any other figure on the right, but for the Biden administration and Bush-era Republicans (like Bill Kristol, David Frum, and Max Boot) who have bolted from the GOP in protest of Trump and now openly support Democrats. He’s a relentless critic of the mainstream media for its coverage of Russian interference in the 2016 election and Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. And he continually lambasts the center-left MSNBC and CNN while accepting regular invitations to appear on the conservative Fox News, most frequently on Tucker Carlson’s explicitly right-wing prime-time talk show.
Does this mean Greenwald has migrated to the right? A lot of his critics seem to think so, and I understand why. But the truth is actually more interesting and troubling than that. Greenwald is a vivid case study in the deleterious intellectual and moral consequences of selective skepticism.
The Promise and Challenge of Skepticism
Skepticism is an essential element of human thinking, the act of a mind breaking from the given, subjecting it to doubt, and entertaining alternative possibilities. Skepticism is also an essential element of the culture of criticism bequeathed to modern societies by the Enlightenment. Across all of its national variants, the 18th-century movement advocated public disputation about ideas through the judicious application of skepticism to received views, as well as to novel theories and hypotheses, with truth and knowledge advancing on the far side of this ongoing skeptical process.
But skepticism isn’t an unambiguous good. That’s why the most crucial word in the previous paragraph may well be judicious—because skepticism needs to be applied in a balanced and fair-minded way, to received as well as to newly asserted truth-claims, and even to itself. We sometimes need to be skeptical of our skepticism. Otherwise, it can become a vehicle for insulating one set of views from criticism, by undermining the trustworthiness of its critics.
For our individual thinking to remain open to the complexity and complication of reality, and for the culture of public critique to be self-correcting over the long haul, we need to subject ourselves and our own side to doubt, along with those our own side is already predisposed to distrust. Perhaps most important of all, we also need to avoid falling into the trap of blindly trusting alternative sources of information just because they prove to be effective critics of our opponents.
We need to be self-consistent and self-limiting skeptics, in other words, open to the possibility of error on all sides. And that’s where Greenwald has lost his way.
The Origins of Greenwald’s One-Sided Skepticism
Appalled by the way the Bush administration waged the War on Terror, Greenwald adopted a position of intense skepticism about its policies and the way it justified them. And about everyone who served in the administration. And everyone in the media who acted as a cheerleader for those policies, or who even publicized administration claims with insufficient skepticism.
That has served Greenwald well as a journalist. It’s good to be skeptical of government policies and official justifications of them. It’s good to criticize media outlets that get too cozy with power. It’s good to hold authorities to account when things go badly or embarrassing mistakes get covered up. Greenwald has done all of that—with Bush-era Republicans, and with center-left Democrats who supported the Iraq War and signed off on the administration’s national security policies (as well as with Bolsonaro’s government and the politicized prosecution of Lula in Brazil).
The problem is that Greenwald’s skepticism is applied selectively. Anyone who had anything to do with the Bush administration, anyone who was once insufficiently skeptical of it (including many Democrats), and any media company that has hired or given a megaphone to administration staffers or one-time defenders now works under a cloud of absolute and permanent suspicion in Greenwald’s mind—while anyone who shares that suspicion of Bush-era Republicans, center-left Democrats, and mainstream media outlets gets treated as a trusted ally in pursuit of the truth.
I don’t see any other way to account for the fact that Greenwald spent almost the entirety of the Trump administration eviscerating center-left Democrats and journalists for pushing the story of Russian collusion in the 2016 election, about which he was thoroughly (and sometimes justifiedly) skeptical, and yet had very little critical to say about the rampant corruption, incompetence, and insurrectionary lies of the 45th president and his political and media enablers.
Or why Greenwald now mixes intense and sometimes reasonable skepticism of Biden administration statements about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Ukrainian government’s own propaganda with credulous takes about the war that tend to align with what Vladimir Putin and Russian apologists say about the origins of the conflict.
Or why he would continually apply severe (and occasionally well-earned) skepticism to Rachel Maddow and MSNBC over their news coverage and analysis while the right-wing fear-mongering, demagoguery, and agitprop of Tucker Carlson and Fox News are allowed to slide.
Again and again, Greenwald applies intense skepticism to a finite list of political and journalistic enemies while applying none at all to those with whom he shares antipathies. The enemies of his enemies are his friends, and friends apparently get an automatic pass.
A Vivid Example of a Broader Trend
If this were just a personal peccadillo, it might not be worth noting (even in a subscription newsletter). But it’s actually an especially vivid example of a much broader and quite pernicious trend.
Consider our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. I get why Joe Biden and other Democrats responded to Donald Trump’s often bizarre and scientifically ill-founded statements about virus treatments by insisting that we should “trust the science.” But blind faith is foolish, even when it’s applied to scientists, and especially when those scientists are formulating public policy.
It’s good to be skeptical of government pronouncements, provided the skepticism is measured. The CDC and FDA have made mistakes during the pandemic, sometimes because of scientific errors, but at other times because the agencies and their spokespeople have played armchair social psychologist and sought to control the reception of their own recommendations, in part by dissimulating.
Everyone makes errors—of fact, interpretation, and judgment. That includes politicians, scientists, public-health officials, and bureaucrats toiling at government agencies. As long as that remains true, a healthy dose of skepticism will be warranted in response to what they say and do. That’s perfectly in keeping with fostering an enlightened culture of criticism that makes progress in knowledge over time.
But that doesn’t mean millions of Americans have been right to pivot from skepticism about some assertions of the CDC to unskeptically trusting cranks hawking Ivermectin as a COVID treatment instead. Indeed, you should be much more skeptical of such claims than you should be of more mainstream doctors, scientists, and public-health officials working within institutions that explicitly aim (however fallibly) to spot and correct errors—because the cranks are operating on their own, with fewer checks and less formal oversight.
Much the same could be said about any number of issues in politics and journalism today. We increasingly determine what’s worthy or unworthy of skepticism based not on prior track record or whether the person’s or institution’s claims have gone through a process of careful, rigorous (and yes, sometimes flawed) review, but based solely on whether the person or institution is on our side.
Progressives trust progressives and doubt the claims of conservatives. Conservatives trust conservatives and doubt the claims of progressives. And someone like Greenwald, who acquired maximal distrust of mainstream Republicans, Democrats, and media outlets in the mid-aughts, has become a reflexive anti-centrist inclined to trust those who display the greatest possible contempt for the people and institutions of the centrist-liberal establishment. And he apparently thinks the right-wing populists fomenting nightly outrage on Fox News fit that bill better than anyone else.
By all means, be skeptical of supposedly established facts, reigning narratives of heroes and villains, and much else that’s said and done in Washington and the media. But don’t respond by dropping your guard against hucksters and charlatans on your own side, or any side—even, and perhaps especially, if they share your prejudices about who’s least trustworthy of all.
We most need our skepticism when we’re least inclined to think we do.
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