Parochialism and internationalism on the Left

Glenn Greenwald is an indomitable force. I can’t think of anyone else who seems capable of expending as much energy and writing at such length in his own defense.

When Sam Charles Hamad, in a column published on Wednesday, took Greenwald to task for his hypocritical stance on war crimes, a vociferous rebuttal was just hours away. Greenwald not only denies any form of hypocrisy — he claims his critics have deceitfully redefined the term:

“Hypocrisy” always meant “contradicting with words or actions one’s claimed principles and beliefs” (e.g., lecturing the world on freedom and human rights while arming and funding the world’s worst tyrannies). It is now being re-defined to mean: “one who denounces some terrible acts but not all.”

By that definition, someone could be accused of hypocrisy if they denounce war crimes while neglecting to denounce corporate crime.

As Greenwald reasonably argues, “a single individual with finite time and energy … capable of focusing only on a relatively small handful of injustices at once, [may choose] the ones where he thinks he can have the greatest impact, thus necessarily paying little to no attention to other grave injustices where he thinks he can have little or no effect.”

Fair enough — or seemingly so. Yet Greenwald, no stranger to deceitful lines of reasoning, knows full well that the accusation of hypocrisy in this case is focused squarely on his selective interest in war crimes (not the full panoply of global injustices) where the specific instances of the crime — military attacks on hospitals — are the same, the only difference being the perpetrator.

To denounce some instances of this action, while disregarding others, at the same time as expressing a principled opposition to war crimes, fits the generally accepted definition of hypocrisy. No new definition of hypocrisy is being contrived.

At this point, Greenwald’s pragmatic rejoinder kicks in, which is to say, he would argue that for him to denounce Russian war crimes in Syria would have little or no effect.

For authoritative guidance on this strand of ethical reasoning, Greenwald links to a statement made by Noam Chomsky:

My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences [My emphasis]. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.

So, Chomsky, Greenwald, and others like them, focus their ire on the crimes of the U.S. government because of the “anticipated and predictable consequences” of their denunciations.

But moral crusaders of this variety surely don’t measure the effectiveness of their political activism by the degree to which they influence the behavior of the U.S. military or the formulation of foreign policy in Washington.

On the contrary, having an impact has much more to do with having the capacity to stir up popular outrage and rally like-minded followers. By that measure, Chomsky’s impact has indeed been measurable and he has served America for decades by mobilizing dissent.

When it comes to events such as the attack on a hospital in Kunduz, I would venture that the protests coming from Médecins Sans Frontières may have had some impact in the corridors of power, while Greenwald’s probably had none.

Do voices of dissent such as his have much impact outside the ranks of America’s stalwart critics? Do predictable denunciations of America’s crimes actually have any effect in reducing this criminality?

I would argue that both Chomsky and Greenwald need to have some modesty about the scope of their influence. Their greatest impact, far outside Washington, is on people who hang on their every word.

When it comes to this audience they should really be asking whether they are in fact raising awareness and promoting critical thinking, or, on the contrary, shepherding a flock of believers who happily echo their thought-leaders?

Can these forms of dissent serve as catalysts of constructive change, or do they instead tend to reinforce an anti-imperialist form of conservatism which narrows thought and fosters parochialism?

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2 thoughts on “Parochialism and internationalism on the Left

  1. Frank Brodhead

    “When it comes to this audience they should really be asking whether they are in fact raising awareness and promoting critical thinking, or, on the contrary, shepherding a flock of believers who happily echo their thought-leaders?”

    Please don’t be so dismissive of those of us in the USA who think that – as citizens, voters, tax-payers, etc. – the war crimes committed (supposedly in our name) by our government should be our primary focus of criticism, mobilization, and dissent. We are few enough, and our voices seldom penetrate the mainstream media, nor get any support from our elected representatives. – As for Chomsky, he speaks consistently and writes voluminously about the abhorrent nature of the dictators that are among the USA’s official enemies, as well as those that are our useful “allies.” Please rethink your views. Thank you.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    Frank — as I’m sure you are aware, one of the most common charges leveled at the U.S. government is that it engages in blatant hypocrisy. Glenn Greenwald cites as an example: “lecturing the world on freedom and human rights while arming and funding the world’s worst tyrannies.” Many other examples can be given. Is this hypocrisy problematic primarily because it is American, or because hypocrisy wherever it occurs is problematic?

    There is an American exceptionalism at work here which obscures humanitarian issues. Anyone troubled by the sight of a hospital in Afghanistan getting strafed by U.S. aircraft should be troubled when hospitals are getting bombed repeatedly and intentionally in Syria.

    You might say that the bombing in Syria is not being done in your name. What’s special about your name? Neither you nor Chomsky have any discernible influence over the U.S. government, so it requires a quixotic kind of vanity to imagine that you have a special duty to lodge your protests in Washington but no where else.

    It’s time that those of us who have an interest in making this a better world started getting serious about the idea that all human life is of equal value.

    Ironically, the U.S.-centric focus of many of America’s American critics, dovetails with the administration’s hands-off approach to Syria. The brutal consensus seems to be that so long as Americans don’t end up getting killed in another pointless war, we shouldn’t trouble ourselves too much with carnage we have little power to prevent.

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