Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Glenn Greenwald: You can dissent without being a dick

Forgive the crudeness of the headline. But that's the thought I had while reading Glenn Greenwald this morning, as he weighed in on l'affaire Sam Brownback. If you've missed the controversy, here's the skinny: A Kansas teen-ager who was part of a group visiting the Kansas governor sent out a tweet suggesting she had criticized him to his face; the tweet contained a crude hashtag. The governor's communications staff saw the tweet, and told the teen's principal. It's all been resolved, now, and nobody has come out of it looking all that great.

But the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus wrote a column this morning castigating the teen for her incivility. And Greenwald has piped up criticizing Marcus for showing undue deference to elected officials:
Behold the mind of the American journalist: Marcus — last seen in this space three years ago demanding that Bush officials be fully shielded from all accountability for their crimes (the ultimate expression of “respect for authority”) — wants everyone to learn and be guided by extreme deference to political officials and to humbly apologize when they offend those officials with harsh criticism. In other words, Marcus wants all young citizens to be trained to be employees of The Washington Post. In a just world, Marcus’ column would be written instead by Sullivan’s mother, who exudes what the journalistic ethos should be — “I raised my kids to be independent, to be strong, to be free thinkers. If she wants to tweet her opinion about Governor Brownback, I say for her to go for it” — but people who think that way only rarely receive establishment media platforms. Instead, we’re plagued with the Ruth Marcuses of the world — “inculcate values of respect for authority”!!! — and that explains a lot.
Only it doesn't. Greenwald's criticism of Marcus presumes that dissenting from and criticizing elected authorities goes hand-in-hand with uncivil rudeness. It doesn't.

Gandhi managed to end British rule in India without saying of Churchill that "he blows a lot." Martin Luther King Jr. challenged entrenched racism in the the American south without saying that George Wallace "blows a lot." And I'm pretty sure that Rosa Parks kept her seat at the front of the bus without saying the bus driver "blows a lot."

Civility doesn't equal deference, nor does it equal silence. In the case of King and Parks, in particular, civility was a key component to making a forceful, sustained, morally unimpeachable challenge to the systems that oppressed them. That doesn't always work: Sometimes a little jerkiness does help.  But not always. Again: It's a huge mistake to assume that civility is surrender.

Brownback's staff overreacted. (I once covered a murder trial with his spokeswoman, back when she was a Topeka TV reporter; let's just say I'm not surprised.) And I don't really disagree with the assessment made by Emma Sullivan, the teen tweeter. To the extent that it revealed a paranoid strain in Brownback's governance, maybe she was even inadvertently successful. But thousands upon thousands of Kansans work against the governor's agenda every day—through donations, communication, and lobbying—without resorting to barnyard language. They aren't showing undue deference; they're just behaving like adults.


brendancalling said...

um, gotta disagree.
high school kids are, by definition, dicks. Rosa Parks, Ghandhi, the rest were all adults.

also, too, we live in a much cruder culture than those examples. When we were kids, you couldn't say "bitch" on the tv. Now not only can you say that one, you have a whole plethora of swears you can say or imply, even in commercials ("Frank's Red Hot: I put that BLEEEEEP on everything"). I'm not saying that's good, but kids are products of the environment they're raised in.

so I'm with greenwald, I tell you in my most civil tones.

Joel said...

And I appreciate the civility!

Problem here is that Greenwald is the one who transposed this issue into one of journalistic—adult—deference to power. That suggests a belief that rudeness and dissent go hand-in-hand. I just don't think that's necessarily true.

But yeah: Teens are dicks. And our culture (including me) is much coarser than it once was.

Anonymous said...

The other issue is that "suck" and "blows" in the context the kid used them aren't actually foul language. That's not to say it was particularly brilliant commentary, but it also isn't really very rude. Yes, the usage of the two terms to mean something like "bad" derives from language used to describe sex, but they lose that connotation in the usage we saw. I see the usage as akin to responding to a friend telling me: "I'm going to have to work all weekend" by saying: "that sucks" or "that blows." It's perhaps a little bit ruder when applied to a person (just as saying "you're a terrible person" is worse than saying something that happened was "terrible), but it's certainly not foul language.

Joel said...

I'd agree with that, Anon, but there's a difference between foul language and uncivil language. I think the intent was clearly uncivil, if not clearly foul.

I don't think the incivility was wrong, exactly. But one can, as Greenwald says, "express one's opinion" without resorting to incivility. That's my main point here.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Here's my take on it, in case anyone cares:

1. Ms. Sullivan expressed her political opinion, which she had a right — one might even say a civic obligation — to do. One could only wish that other 18 year-olds cared as much about what their elected officials were doing.

2. She undermined her position by fabricating a bit of her tweet and using inflammatory language. This is unfortunate.

So: so far, #1 minus #2 = a wash, on the road to going the way of all tweets. BUT…

3. Brownback’s office tried to quash any perceived criticism by bullying an 18 year-old girl whose claims would have otherwise likely vanished into the ether forever… thus proving her point.

Conclusion: Brownback (or his office; whatever) has shown himself to be a fool with a capital “T”. This is something that Kansans have known for a while; now the whole country knows it.

adviceyoudidntseek said...

As other comments have stated, Brownback's reaction was not that of a Rosa Parks or Ghandi even though he is the adult in this matter and the governor, presumably someone whose behavior and civility is expected to be exemplary.

Some reports say his office both informed the principal of the school and demanded an apology. Public officials (and public figures) in my view step way out of line when they even suggest that the public owes them any deference.

If the governor has the stuff of a lawsuit here (and he doesn't) let him file it. Otherwise it should have been brushed off as one young person who is probably not going to vote for him next time he runs.