Glenn Greenwald at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls on Reforming US Foreign Policy

Answering audience question

Last month on a Thursday evening (10 March 2011), Glenn Greenwald (his Salon.com column; Twitter; Wikipedia; recent Awl interview) gave a talk at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls titled “Reforming U.S. Foreign Policy” (MWSU’s philosophy program and a few other people/groups you can see on the flyer sponsored the event). His mere appearance was notable since Wichita Falls and MWSU are small places (city population about 100k, university students about 6500) in the Republic of Texas, roughly 3 hours away from the Dallas – Fort Worth metroplex. These days the Republic is about as right-wing a state as it gets (2010 Texas Republican Party Platform in PDF), and Greenwald is by no means a minor commentator. A traditional way to show his prominence: he has two NYT bestselling books to his name, in 2009 Forbes ranked him the 18th Most Influential Liberal in US Media, and he’s appeared on TV news programs ranging from Democracy Now! to Rachel Maddow to Brit Hume to Colbert. Watch him defend Wikileaks and Julian Assange on CNN with this embed:

An alternate way to show Greenwald’s prominence? The law firm Hunton & Williams requested three data intelligence firms — HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies, and Berico Technologies (all connected with the US national security industry) — develop a proposal on behalf of Bank of America, which apparently fears a Wikileaks mega-leak exposing mis-doings. Part of the leaked proposal targeted Greenwald:

(The Anonymous hack leaking emails (searchable!) showing the HBGary et al. plan against Greenwald & Wikileaks also revealed HBGary has worked on “persona management” software to help the US create fake netizens as astroturf to manufacture “the illusion of consent” and “gang up” on bloggers.)

The drive from Fort Worth to MWSU was long, especially as I’d never visited the campus before, and I was teaching that day. So unfortunately I entered the auditorium about 45(?) minutes late.

From my seat near the back of the auditorium, I placed the crowd size at about 150; Greenwald later said the sponsor(s) guessed around 150-200. Many were students, taking notes like mad. Greenwald speaks very quickly, very well, and in long, complex, grammatically correct sentences — I gave up my attempt to live-tweet the event. He didn’t appear to use any notes, either, though maybe he had a bullet-point outline page on the podium or something.

Two days prior, Greenwald spoke in Santa Fe on the current political climate, so with the two Santa Fe embeds below — I haven’t found any for the MWSU Wichita Falls event — you can hear some of the same content and also get a sense of his speaking style. There’s a transcript of the Santa Fe talk here and a transcript of its Q&A here.

Much of what Greenwald said in Wichita Falls about foreign policy matches his article “The crux of our endless War on Terror.” From the article:

not only is our policy of endless war wildly disproprionate and counter-productive, but it provides the pretext for endless civil liberties abuses. Here is what [Obama’s Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael] Leiter boasts after being asked about the Obama administration’s targeting of U.S. citizens for assassination who have been charged with nothing: “Just to be clear, the U.S. government through the Department of Defense goes out and attempts to target and kill people, a lot of people, who haven’t been indicted.” […]

[All this] despite the fact that we have been continuously wrong in our accusations of Terrorism and have even knowingly imprisoned innocent people. […]

Leiter concedes (as has been recognized by the U.S. Government for years) that [US counter-terrorism] actions have the opposite effect of what is supposedly intended: namely, these actions are what motivate so much of the very Terrorism (especially the recent Terrorism) that is cited to justify those policies. […]

All because there are a few hundred people hiding in caves in remote tribal areas who are really, really Scary: who will get you if don’t acquiesce to endless war, the transfer of enormous amounts of money to fight those wars, and the most unlimited and unchecked government powers imaginable. And even when they come right out and say that this is all about nothing more than a few hundred people — many of whom are motivated by the very violence we’re perpetrating — it changes very little. Fear is an extremely potent motivating force, overwhelming all reason and skepticism of power. That’s why political leaders — in all eras and all places — like it and use it so much.

In this connection, note USA (combined) military spending since 2001 has been a bailout-per-year (approx $700 billion). If you froth about the bailout’s size, remember: total USA military spending, now: a bailout per year. (Progressive Libertarians, there’s your mantra!)

Since I wasn’t able to take many notes during the (high-speed!) talk, and since much of the content matched the embeds and the article above, I’ll simply bullet-point some of the notes I did manage to take. These are comments from Greenwald, paraphrased by me; any mistakes mine.

  • He referred approvingly to the Washington Post’s Top Secret America investigation. The investigation shows the national security industry in America has grown so large, has become such a huge portion of the government, that no one has really been able to successfully keep track of it and its spending.

  • Our civil rights we’re told about from childhood (due process, free speech, free press, &tc.) do make us better (in that regard) than other countries, make us free; war is the great enemy of those freedoms. The greatest violations of civil liberties pretty much occur during war. The Espionage Act, the Japanese internments, Senator McCarthy, the current NSA.

  • Some secrecy is necessary for governments, but that’s supposed to be the exception, not the rule.

  • War creates constant fear. The way to get a citizenry to agree to wage a war is to get them to fear something. FDR had a difficult time convincing Americans to enter World War Two; after the senseless World War One, there was a broad sense in America that wars should not be entered unless we’re directly under attack. What finally convinced Americans was the fear the Japanese brought about through Pearl Harbor. Fear is the pre-requisite for war. Overall, fear is an important, valuable, and important emotion. But oftentimes, fear becomes its own addiction. No matter what, whether the war in question is just or not, it puts the citizenry in fear.

  • Here’s one of his anecdotes about the current climate of fear in America. He wrote an article about Wikileaks before they’d released the Collateral Murder video — before Wikileaks was known well in the States. He initially learned of them by reading the Pentagon had in 2002 prepared a secret report declaring Wikileaks an enemy to be destroyed — ironically enough, the report was leaked to Wikileaks [This line got much laughter]. Greenwald began to suggest his readers donate to the organization. But people told him they were afraid — though Wikileaks had never been charged with or convicted of a crime. They were afraid they’d end up on “some list.” The War on Terror has made people afraid of our government, has made people believe there’s very little the government can’t do to you.

  • It’s not as if we’re going to be able to round up a finite number of terrorists with T‘s stamped on their foreheads, kill them, and then we’ll be free of fear and terror, ready to resume our civil liberties. No, now we’re in a period of perpetual war.

  • Terrorism works because terrorists decide for whatever reasons that they’re willing to blow themselves up to kill as many other people as possible, to sacrifice their lives in other ways, in order to inflict damage and send messages … What is it that leads people to this point? Well, every day the Muslim world broadcasts the damage the USA inflicts there; imagine some group / country / government striking your weddings, parties, homes, and you hear about it day and day out — that’s what makes a terrorist want to attack the USA. Yet if as an American citizen you say the solution to terrorism might be to stop bombing people, you’re often considered a terrorist yourself!

And, from the Question and Answer period, audience questions:

  • Q: What do you say when people tell you you’re Anti-American for talking in your reasonable, critical way?

    A: The ultimate patriotic duty, your obligation, is to critique the policies you think are hurting your own citizens. I don’t think there’s something inherently evil about the USA; but, the actions we’re engaging in are extremely destructive.

  • Q: Could you say something about the plight of Bradley Manning, alleged leaker to Wikileaks?

  • A: When people ask me how I manage to say things some people take as anti-American, I think about people such as Manning who are undergoing much worse than I am, and I get courage from that.

  • Q: What should an everyday citizen do to promote the kind of positions you’re advocating?

  • De-fund the wars. Talk to people about the issues. Also, the nascent grassroots alliances between Progressives and Libertarians might further the de-funding of the wars.

  • Q [by me]: Can you talk about tensions between transparency and privacy, not so much with groups such as Wikileaks where power disparities are clear-cut, but with other groups such as UniLeaks, who publishes leaks about universities … or, leaks about small businesses, medium-size businesses … [Here I wanted to mention a quote attributed to Assange in a Mother Jones article: Wikileaks “want[s] every person who’s having a dispute with their kindergarten to feel confident about sending us material.”]

  • A: This question has come up recently with people accusing Assange of hypocrisy. Public citizens with political power should be subject to transparency; ordinary private citizens should be allowed privacy. Right now our culture has completely reversed that .. that’s the dichotomy that has to be kept in line.

After the Q&A, I spoke with Greenwald briefly to thank him for making Texas something other than a right-wing state for a few hours. He seemed a fairly normal guy, and I mean that in a good way; partly it’s a superficial comment to make, but after run-ins with more than one odd political group or wiseman or …, I tend to take a moment to measure such things as body language and whatnot. (Not that I’m any sort of sartorial genius or smooth operator myself; I bumble.)

I asked Greenwald for further comment on my question — for instance, I asked, is the dichotomy between transparency and privacy something to be hashed out over time via common law and the like? He suggested it’s more of a cultural thing, that culture is more of the prime mover in this regard. Unfortunately he and I had all of twenty seconds to talk about it, but that’s how these events go. =) As a follow-up I’d have asked about Žižek’s take on Wikileaks. Žižek says the predominant leftist model of Wikileaks sees it merely as a “radical case of ‘investigative journalism'” and sees power as “held by the bad guys at the top” rather than as “something that permeates the entire social body, determining how we work, think and consume.” I don’t agree with Žižek’s downplaying of investigative journalism, but I think he raises interesting questions, especially in light of Assange’s comment in Mother Jones indicating an interest in publishing material on more everyday organizations. In Santa Fe Greenwald said:

to me, when people raise concerns, ‘well, isn’t Wikileaks going a little too far in disclosing some things that should be secret?’ We’re so far over towards the pole of excessive secrecy that I can’t even envision the day when I’m going to start worrying about excessive disclosure. I’d like to be in that position, but we’re so far from that day. So, yes, some things should be kept secret, but that is so far away from the problem that we have, that things that should be kept secret aren’t being kept secret, when everything is being kept secret, and that’s a real threat to democracy.

I basically agree with Greenwald here (and Clay Shirky), but I believe we’d benefit from experts such as Greenwald pondering aloud the far-off day of excessive disclosure, and the current time of a wildly changing public space, even if that’s not their exact realm of expertise. (See, for instance, David Brin‘s book The Transparent Society.) Then again, as a writer who often writes science fiction, I sometimes reason from the future backwards, which isn’t always the best thing to do.

Moral philosophers should consider this: are white lies, those social niceties, justified, and does social networking and the current change in the public space change the issue? Political science people should go after Obama’s statement “I can’t conduct diplomacy on an open source.” And one way for someone with a law background to look at it might be: what happens to libel and slander laws as we, through social networking, all become more public citizens? Wikileaks is a radical and good case of investigative journalism, but it is something more also, something we’re all having trouble putting our finger on.

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