Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Learning to live with ambiguity

David Cole provides us with a fascinating review of Glenn Greenwald's book No Place to Hide. Here is the money quote:
Part of the problem is that Greenwald sees the world in black and white. As he puts it, “There are, broadly speaking, two choices: obedience to institutional authority or radical dissent from it.” For him there is apparently nothing in between. Anyone who does not share his radical dissent is, therefore, a tool for the political elite.
I have to say that as I pondered that for awhile this morning, I got some fresh eyes about why it is that Greenwald pushes my buttons so effectively. The reality is that the choices he limits us to - obedience or radical dissent - are the two I have spent much of my life trying to avoid.

I've mentioned before that I spent my childhood in a family, church and community that embraced obedience to fundamentalist Christianity. When the cognitive dissonance became too much to bear, I specifically avoided the route that most others had chosen - that of radical dissent. Instead, I started asking hard questions. That's why I've always found Sara Robinson's description of the process of leaving the authoritarian mindset so powerfully affirming.
Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity.
Niether obedience nor radical dissent allow for ambiguity. In my experience, they are both boxes we lock ourselves into that give the keys to independent thought away for others to control. Its easier to see how that happens via obedience. But radical dissent locks us in as well. It takes away the option of ever agreeing with someone in a position of power/authority (remember: Greenwald said that he always assumes that people in power are lying).

What keeps us inside those boxes is fear. David Whyte captured what that fear is all about in a poem titled Revelation Must Be Terrible.
Being far from home is hard, but you know,
at least we are exiled together.
When you open your eyes to the world

you are on your own for
the first time. No one is
even interested in saving you now
Being "on your own" means deciding for yourself rather than the black and white of obedience or radical dissent. But it also means making peace with yourself (go read the rest of Whyte's poem).

The hard part is that the boundaries of labeling others as heroes or villains are not so clear anymore. You actually have to listen to what they say and decide for yourself whether you agree with them or not.

This is why I find it so fascinating that - just as Greenwald's heroism is being extolled with the release of his book - the same crowd is having a field day demonizing the villain President Obama chose to be his Treasury Secretary (Tim Geithner) on the day his book is released. And what was Geithner's greatest sin? Not villainizing Wall Street sufficiently. When you follow the path of either obedience or radical dissent, your heros and villains are chosen for you. It is imperative that you listen to the former and dismiss the latter. That's what passes for political discourse these days.

I believe that - more than anything else - this is what absolutely confounds people about President Obama. As James Kloppenberg wrote back in 2010:
Obama rejects dogma, embraces uncertainty, and dismisses the fables that often pass for history among partisans on both sides who need heroes and villains, and who resist more-nuanced understandings of the past and the present...

After almost two years as president, Obama has failed to satisfy the left for the same reason that he has antagonized the right. He does not share their self-righteous certainty.
In other words, at some point Barack Obama learned to face the fear and live with ambiguity. As his law school students have said..."he was in the business of complication." That is something that those who are determined to see the world through the black and white lens of obedience vs radical dissent will never be able to comprehend. But it is exactly what is necessary if we are ever going to expand our moral imagination.


  1. I love your emotional honesty and willingness to let us in on your journey.

    I see too many similarities between the obedience people and the radical dissenters to view them separately. They both are intolerant of people who disagree with them; they both see things in black and white; they both demand loyalty to their heroes and disdain of their villains. They are one and the same to me.

    1. I see your comment made it through. Thanks for trying again.

      And yes, I agree that both sides of that authoritarian coin are the same thing.

  2. (My last attempt to post this comment appears to have been eaten)

    I find myself disagreeing with those on the left who think that only the right-wing is subject to authoritarianism. While the right tends to be suceptable to the "great man" theory of politics. I would argue that the left is equally susceptable to the "great idea" theory of politics.

    Also, I find it ironic that Glenn Greenwald has such a black-n-white view of the world since his first book was a (masterful) deconstruction of the Manichean nature of the Bush administration. Who would have guess that Greenwald has turned out to be as much of a Manichean as the Bushies?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. What you need first and foremost to understand is that Glenn Greenwald is a Libertarian, not a civil libertarian, as some have claimed. Once that is understood, his actions and the motivation behind them become clear (I'll need to break this into several comments to get the point across so please bear with me):

    The Ron Paul Right-Wing Libertarian Triumvirate: Greenwald, Snowden, and Assange outed by Princeton History Professor Sean Wilenz:

    "Would you feel differently about Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange if you knew what they really thought?"

    Journalist Mark Ames on Tea Party/Greenwald generated NSA hysteria:

    "Found: Libertarians' 'Lying To Liberals' Guide Book":

    "All of that is stunning enough—and something to keep in mind if you find yourself getting all dewy-eyed as you take your place on the bottom of the "strange bedfellows" at the StopWatching.us [NSA] rally, topped by such rancid libertarian outfits as FreedomWorks, the Kochs’ climate denial front Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Kochs’ new anti-Obamacare Astroturf front Generation Opportunity, Students For Liberty (funded by CIA/NSA contractor Peter Thiel), Ron Paul’s Young Americans For
    Liberty, the Libertarian Party..."

    Libertarian Glenn Greenwald, formerly of Koch-funded Cato Institute:


The Coming Tyranny of Six Supreme Court Justices

Our democracy is hanging on by a thread and nothing captures that better than the fact that the party that lost the popular vote in seven of...