Saturday, May 16, 2015

Glenn Greenwald’s semi-reverse Dear Muslima

Glenn Greenwald is a sincere and articulate advocate for freedom and human rights and has done an incredible amount of good work. I read his pieces regularly. Which is why I’m so highly annoyed at how he’s positioned himself with regard to Charlie Hebdo and those supporting blasphemy and other forms of free expression that drive some theocrats into a censorious homicidal rage.

It was bad enough that Greenwald kept celebrating the PEN protesters and their ignorant smears while refusing, as they did, to engage with evidence and arguments that could lead to a rethinking of his position. But his latest article on the subject – “Greatest Threat to Free Speech Comes Not From Terrorism, But From Those Claiming to Fight It” – not only continues in that vein but demonstrates a twist on one of the most odious of rhetorical devices: the Dear Muslima.

He notes, correctly, that “[t]hreats to free speech can come from lots of places.” Yes, they can, and that’s essential to keep in mind. It’s not an aside, to be covered in one short phrase before moving on to judging whether some threats are best left unchallenged.

I’m going to approach this from my perspective as an anarchist. There’s a certain irony to the characterization of anarchists as being excessively or obsessively concerned with governments. What’s characterized anarchism from the beginning has been a recognition that any authority poses a threat to freedom. Anarchists have tended to emphasize the threats posed by governments, religions, and economic powers because they tend to be the largest concentrations capable of institutional repression, and often act in league. But we’ve always appreciated that threats to free expression can come from endlessly diverse sources – local gangs, traditional elites, internet harassers, parents and families,… Which danger looms largest for any particular person varies according to circumstance, and even the fact that some threats are more institutionalized and affect more people in a given time and place doesn’t mean the others are negligible.

At the same time, anarchists have – of necessity – remained all too aware of the specific threat posed by governments, including “liberal” regimes. Many of the policies and practices Greenwald writes about had their roots in the repression of anarchists a century ago and, more recently, in the corporate-state war on the animal liberation movement. I don’t know if he’s written about this history, or about recent targeted legislation like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, but I wouldn’t necessarily hold it against him if that wasn’t the focus of his efforts. We all have different areas of interest and expertise, and that’s needed: people who specialize in one area rely on those who work in others.

Which is why I don’t understand Greenwald’s choice to frame his presentation of important evidence and analysis concerning some threats to free expression in opposition to those of us who focus – or, in many cases like mine, also focus – on other threats. He follows up his short statement recognizing that threats come from lots of places with
But right now, the greatest threat by far in the West to ideals of free expression is coming not from radical Muslims, but from the very Western governments claiming to fight them.
Again, even in the “West,” the “greatest threat” varies according to circumstances. But generally speaking this is plausible. The problem comes when he jumps from this assertion to a number of mistaken and counterproductive arguments:
Actually, there has long been a broad, sustained assault in the West on core political liberties — specifically due process, free speech and free assembly — perpetrated not by “radical Muslims,” but by those who endlessly claim to fight them. Sadly, and tellingly, none of that has triggered parades or marches or widespread condemnation by Western journalists and pundits. But for those who truly believe in principles of free expression — as opposed to pretending to when it allows one to bash the Other Tribe — these are the assaults that need marches and protests.
The broad, sustained assault is absolutely real. The same can’t be said of some of the arguments implied here:

• that the “greatest threat” to those in “the West” should be the exclusive focus of “Western” activists

• that focusing on threats from governments or groups targeted by Western governments is illegitimate

• that there are no radical Muslims who threaten free expression (at least not in the West)

• that those who defend the right to free expression against the threats and violence of Islamists are a monolithic group

• that all of those who defend the right to free expression against the threats and violence of Islamists focus singlemindedly on this one issue

• that all of those who defend the right to free expression against the threats and violence of Islamists are dishonest pretenders concerned not with free expression but with “bashing” the “Other Tribe”

None of this is true. If “threats to free speech can come from lots of places,” as of course they can and do, free speech needs to be defended against all of those threats. To argue that only some threats are legitimate and worthy of defending against – “these are the assaults that need marches and protests” – is to ignore or dismiss the victims of those threats deemed illegitimate and unworthy (not just Charlie Hebdo, but Raif Badawi, Bangladeshi freethought bloggers, feminist radicals in Afghanistan, Tunisian filmmakers, Algerian novelists,…). It’s as hypocritical as Greenwald accuses others of being.

And the worst of it is that there’s no need to make or dwell on these assumptions. We can defend free expression – all while distinguishing between rightwing racists from those genuinely fighting for universal rights and while appreciating the impact of our own social location – from any and all threats. Some people will focus on the US government; some on the Iranian or Saudi Arabian or Israeli or Russian or Honduran or…governments. Some will focus on university administrations; some on rape and death threats to women and gay and trans people online. Some will speak out for science or activism that threatens corporate interests; some for blasphemers and secularists. All of this is necessary, and while there are reactionary interests always poised to exploit movements in defense of free expression, they don’t discredit any of these efforts.

The last thing a global campaign for free expression needs is for some defenses of free expression to be framed in opposition to others or to show disdain for others.

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