Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for The Guardian, speaks to reporters at his hotel in Hong Kong Monday, June 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu) “
Shorter @rickperlstein ‘server,’ does not mean ‘server.’ How much did Big Data pay u to play Judas? Regret buying 1 of ur books.”
The message, from tweeter @runtodaylight, came Friday, in quick reaction to my response to Glenn Greenwald’s piece “On PRISM, Partisanship, and Propaganda.” Yesterday I received what a friend described as a “condolence” note about the abuse I’ve been getting from Greenwald fans—but no condolences are necessary. Luckily, for whatever reason, stuff like this has next to no emotional effect on me. The way I look at it, the work I’m blessed to be able to do affords me a cascade of privileges—attention, respect and a middle-class income; all that for safe, dry, indoor work; the grace of spending my days honoring the wellsprings of creativity churning inside me; near-constant affectionate avowals from strangers who trust that the things I tap out on my laptop have afforded them some measure of meaning, pleasure or understanding; that the small quantum of stupid stuff that comes my way never much penetrates. Thanks to this thick skin, I read all my comments. A lot of writers don’t. They talk about how the anonymity of the Internet licenses shallowness and cruelty. Eh, whatever. I’m never entirely sure that whatever I write is correct or clear or useful or profound or not, so a lot of stuff others consider straight-up trolling I often welcome as contributions to what I’m trying to accomplish. Which, after all, is a collective, not personal, project—for if I’m not reaching people and persuading people, I’m not doing anything at all. It’s good to know when people are not being reached or persuaded. So I listen and strive to respect my friendly and unfriendly interlocutors both, as best I can, for they are my lifeblood. What else can I do?
Glenn Greenwald, I’ve been learning, is different. Here’s what he said out of the box about my argument that he may have made a mistake in his claim about how PRISM works: that it turns “the eagerness of Democratic partisans to defend the NSA as a means of defending President Obama.” I’m one of the propagandists referred to in his piece’s title. Not correct. Not clear. Not profound. But most of all and most importantly, not useful. Let me say a bit as to why.
For one thing, I couldn’t care less about defending Barack Obama. I think he sucks at most parts of his job as I understand it—tactically, strategically, ideologically, rhetorically, intellectually, ethically—but I’m not going to get caught in a pissing match establishing my bona fides on the subject. Should I link to this so that I’ll maybe “win” the argument? I’d rather not. Too late, because I just did—the temptation of intellectuals to make this “about us” is too great. We’re human. We have egos. (“If you’re reduced to implying that Rick Fking Perlstein is overly solicitous of this administration, it’s time to lose all the fanboys and come back to the pack a little”: Thanks, Charlie Pierce!) But I wish we didn’t, because ultimately, it’s not about us. Our power to unmake a president, or bear him aloft with the sheer power of our prose if that’s what we prefer, is nugatory anyway. All we can do it try to tell the truth as we understand it, without fear or favor.