On Trolls With Blogs

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 16, 2011

Benjamin Wittes explains why Glenn Greenwald will remain beneath his notice:

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a producer inviting me to participate in a “debate+discussion with Glenn [Greenwald] about the legality of the Predator strikes.” I responded, “I would be happy to discuss the subject . . . but I’m afraid I am unwilling to appear alongside Glenn Greenwald on any subject in any forum. I don’t consider us as participating in remotely the same conversation.”

This exchange took place before Greenwald’s and my back-and-forth this past week—in which he attacked me for faux centrism, for being on the take from lavish funders, and for servilely worshiping power, and in which I somewhat archly refused to engage him and compared him to the Jacobins.

The volume of email I have received following my non-response to Greenwald has been a genuine testament to the size of his readership. Almost all of the emails have been abusive. On Twitter, too, I am taking my lumps. The themes are remarkably consistent. I am a coward for ducking an argument. Greenwald has made a substantive case which I am avoiding with a fake insistence on civility—even as I defend torturers. My refusal to engage proves the merits of Greenwald’s positions.

I have tried to answer each of the emails, some of which have yielded substantive and valuable exchanges. And while none of this correspondence has convinced me that I should respond to Greenwald, it has collectively convinced me that I should explain more clearly why I do not do so—a decision that, as the email above reflects, I made long before his post of this week.

Tellingly, with a single exception, no regular reader of Lawfare has urged me to respond or has written to question my refusal to do so. People who spend time reading this blog—and it’s not a huge group—have wide-ranging political sensibilities, but they share a tendency to insist on civility and common politeness. A while back, a human rights activist sent in some very cutting remarks about my views and asked me to post them. As I was getting ready to do so, he emailed and asked me to change a sentence that, he worried, could be construed as a personal attack. That’s the sensibility of this blog—the idea that one can criticize ideas, even quite harshly, without questioning people’s motives, accusing them of corruption, or pretending they do not believe what they say.

My problem with Greenwald is not his politics. I engage with people of his politics all the time. It is the pervasive suggestion in his work of the corruption and ill-motive of his opponents, whom he serially fails to credit with believing the arguments they are making. His post about me is a case in point. In his first paragraph, he purports to know my “overarching purpose.” He insinuates–all but states, really–that I am a paid shill of the powerful. And throughout his piece, he casually casts aspersions on my motives and integrity (“dutifully fulfilling his function,” “devote themselves to serving those in power,” “That’s not whose interests they’re funded to defend,” etc.).

I have long thought that it is necessary to take on trolls with large blog readerships, which is why I continue to believe–the requests/demands of many readers notwithstanding–that the likes of Andrew Sullivan, Brad DeLong, and Glenn Greenwald (this list is by no means exclusive) ought to be taken on when they resort to their habitual demagoguery. But one can certainly understand and appreciate Wittes’s attitude on the subject. As he notes about blogfights with trolls, “[m]y life is too short for that.”

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