“Outright media lies are easy to debunk. It’s the lazy, fact-free, inside baseball analysis that’s killing us.” -@Shoq
I have been getting bombarded by people on Twitter accusing me of “being on the wrong side of history” with respect to the NDAA simply because, I suppose, I am not exhibiting the appropriate amount of outrage to match theirs. My interest in politics, the media, and the manner in which narratives are created and disseminated throughout Blogistan, the Twittersphere, and ultimately to the mainstream media is seemingly gauche to some.
One need only look at the 800 plus comments at Balloon Juice yesterday (here, here, and here), many of them excoriating me for focusing on the “wrong” issue. The politics of the day is less important than the fact that our civil liberties are being infringed — at least that is what I’m told.
Nonetheless, as is my right, I will continue to focus on what interests me, no matter how unimportant it may seem to some — and that is this: the language we use to describe and discuss important prevailing issues.
Let’s take one of Milt Shook’s criticism of Glenn Greenwald — that Greenwald refers to the National Defense Authorization Act as the “indefinite detention bill” or the “detention bill”:
Lie #1. There is no such thing as an “Indefinite Detention Bill”. To imply there is means you’re also implying that Obama can veto this bill without killing the entire NDAA. He can’t.
Lie #2. Obama did not announce his intention to sign the “Indefinite Detention Bill” and for Greenwald to claim it’s “embedded” in the 2012 NDAA is an obfuscation, if not an outright falsehood, because it implies a possibility for him to veto just that “bill.”
In response to John Cole’s post decrying Shook’s statement above as “Jonah Goldberg level stupid,” and akin to calling someone a liar for calling a “Kleenex” a “Kroger brand tissue,” I called Cole’s example a “preposterous false equivalence”:
Calling the PPACA “Obamacare,” or calling a Kleenex a “Kroger brand tissue” essentially assigns labels to concepts that are by and large identical. A Kleenex is a tissue; Obamacare is the PPACA. The latter is a politically charged alias, but it does not substantially alter the artifact to which it applies.
“Indefinite detention bill,” on the other hand, is a name chosen to incite the emotions of people expected to be rightfully horrified by the mere existence of a “detention bill,” as if it were the primary law being enacted. It is not. What is actually being enacted is a massive spending and authorization bill to fund and operate the entire United States military worldwide for another year.
In conclusion and with much love to my boo in WV, I have to call his example a preposterous false equivalence.
Language matters. The manner in which we describe things matters. Indeed, Frank Luntz has built a lucrative career on recasting and rephrasing descriptors for policies. “Death Panels.” “Medicare Vouchers.” “ObamaCare.” For example, I know that people on Twitter fear that the NDAA could be used to round up and silence Occupy Wall Street protestors. It taps into a fear of political dissidents being disappeared, as they so often are in dictatorial regimes in foreign countries. The NDAA does not allow for that.
The reason people think that it does, however, is because of the frenzy and hysteria that civil libertarian bloggers whip up through lazy and oftentimes manipulative writing intended to leave a distinct impression on their readers: that this “indefinite detention bill” is a clear and present danger, and an immediate threat to their own civil liberties, as well as the civil liberties of their family and friends. It is hyperbole on steroids cynically contrived to elicit a particular emotional response from the readers, knowing that most of them lack the ability to parse complicated and lengthy legislation, and the concomitant case law.
The responsible journalist or blogger would explain the nuances without the emotional rhetoric and agenda. One need only visit lawfareblog.com or Mother Jones (see Adam Serwer’s piece “The Defense Bill passed, Now What Does It Do?“) for such responsible journalism and blogging. Greenwald and his ilk, on the other hand, exploit the reader’s naivete for purposes of flogging their own on-going anti-government, anti-executive, and implicitly anti-Obama agenda. Anyone who doesn’t yet see his ongoing, anti-everything libertarian agenda dripping from every post he writes is either an armchair ideologue with no sense of history or proportion, or someone with a severe reading disability.
What he does is damaging to the political discourse because it requires an unpacking of the emotional rhetoric that obfuscates the underlying legal, moral, and ethical issues that should be in the public discourse. Instead we’re stuck looking at this visceral short-term hysteria instead of the underlying law which nobody likes.
Greenwald routinely engages in blatant goalpost-shifting: He writes about a particular issue, and after whipping up outrage among his readers, he turns his attention from that issue to a new issue, without making any attempt to defuse the outrage engendered by the original issue. As a result, the goalposts get moved from the original issue to the new issue, even when the new issue is not the basis for the initial outrage. His faithful readers, especially the lazy echo chamber ensembles in the new “old boy” media (many of whom use him for TV filler when they need a good Obama bashing rant), don’t notice or care that the target was shifted. They eagerly ride the outrage beast until it dies or Greenwald has moved on to his next screed with his legions of fans in tow.
For example, when Greenwald first wrote about the National Defense Authorization Act, he focused on the provisions requiring mandatory detention on U.S. soil:
If someone had said before September 11 that the Congress would be on the verge of enacting a bill to authorize military detention inside the U.S., it would be hard to believe. If someone had said after September 11 (or even after the 2006 and 2008 elections) that a Democratic-led Senate — more than ten years later, and without another successful attack on U.S. soil — would be mandating the indefinite continuation of Guantanamo and implementing an expanded AUMF, that, too, would have been hard to believe. But that’s exactly what Congress, with the active participation of both parties, is doing.
After the language authorizing military detention in the United States was removed from the bill, Greenwald deftly moved the goal points:
The ACLU said last night that the bill contains “harmful provisions that some legislators have said could authorize the U.S. military to pick up and imprison without charge or trial civilians, including American citizens, anywhere in the world” and added: “if President Obama signs this bill, it will damage his legacy.” Human Rights Watch said that Obama’s decision “does enormous damage to the rule of law both in the US and abroad” and that “President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law.”
Do you see what he’s done? He has taken the outrage generated by the horrifying thought that Americans could be snatched from their homes and sent to Gitmo never to be heard from again — a bill to authorize military detention inside the U.S. — and simply transferred it to a new issue — that the bill authorizes imprisonment without charge or trial civilians, including American citizens, anywhere in the world.
Now, is this new issue legitimate to discuss? Of course it is — as is the entire bill. In fact, it is imperative that we discuss it — but it is likewise imperative that we are discussing the proper issue. Moreover, it is also crucial that we recognize that there are many folks who still think that this bill permits the government to snatch them from their homes on U.S. soil, when it categorically does not. Greenwald contributes to this ecosystem of misinformation. By continually moving the goalpost, he manipulatively maintains the outrage level in his ongoing and ever-changing narrative, which has already been largely inculcated in and accepted by his audience. Incredibly, the media routinely allows him — if not outright encourages him — to do so.
Greenwald relies upon a loyal chorus of Twitter followers, blog readers, and his friends in the media to rapidly respond to whatever narrative he concocts using this manipulative strategy knowing that few people — especially in the media — will do the work required to place his screeds in their correct political and policy contexts. Sometimes because they’re his friends, and sometime because they’re just, as my friend @Shoq often says, “pathetically lazy.”