Glenn Greenwald: Fascism’s Fellow Traveller
But Greenwald’s reputation as an unbending defender of free expression stretches back a good deal further than this. Before becoming a writer, he had worked as a litigator defending clients in a number of controversial First Amendment suits, and has since written several trenchant polemics defending the right to unconditional free speech. In January 2013, for example, Greenwald wrote the following for the Guardian as part of a response to a French government proposal to censor online hate speech:
The history of human knowledge is nothing more than the realization that yesterday’s pieties are actually shameful errors. It is constantly the case that human beings of the prior generation enshrined a belief as objectively, unchallengably [sic] true which the current generation came to see as wildly irrational or worse. All of the most cherished human dogmas – deemed so true and undeniable that dissent should be barred by the force of law – have been subsequently debunked, or at least discredited. How do you get yourself to believe that you’re exempt from this evolutionary process, that you reside so far above it that your ideas are entitled to be shielded from contradiction upon pain of imprisonment? The amount of self-regard required for that is staggering to me.
Reading this, it would seem logical to suppose that Greenwald’s solidarity with the staff of Charlie Hebdo could be taken for granted. The magazine has, after all, dedicated itself to mocking religious and political pieties, and its attackers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, were surely guilty of the self-regard for which Greenwald expresses such vehement contempt. They considered themselves to be emissaries of God, no less (or – more directly – His fanatical, self-appointed earthbound representatives in Yemen), and sought to shield their beliefs from precisely the kind of criticism and ridicule which eventually cause such cherished dogmas to collapse.
Instead, as Sam Harris noted, the blood had scarcely dried on the walls of Charlie Hebdo‘s offices before Greenwald published a furious article at the Intercept, reviling the magazine for its alleged racism and pouring scorn on its defenders. That his misreading of Charlie Hebdo demonstrated a profound ignorance of their material and a dismal inability to parse satire ought to have been beside the point. After all, as Greenwald was at pains to remind his readers, he has spent much of his life defending the freedom of people to express views he abhors.
But while he was careful to include a perfunctory, throat-clearing defence of Charlie Hebdo’s narrow right to ridicule Islam, Greenwald’s more pressing concern was the denigration of people murdered for publishing cartoons offensive to their assassins. More telling still was the corresponding absence of any criticism of Al Qaeda’s pitiless death squad. Beliefs held to be unchallengeable by Islamic fundamentalists (but wildly irrational by the rest of us) were, it seems, to be exempted from the evolutionary process after all. This is all because Greenwald’s commitment to free speech is subject to a couple of slippery caveats, which make it rather more porous than he likes to pretend.
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