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Sean Wiletnz starts his New Republic hatchet job, "Would you feel differently about Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange if you knew what they really thought?", off right—which is to say, he starts it off with poor prose and a bit of misdirection. "We live in the age of the leaker," he writes. "Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange are celebrated as heroes on op-ed pages and across glossy magazine spreads." And, just like that, he's managed to fit ten pounds of bullshit in a two sentence bag—and that was just the lede.

Really, the entire first section is a continuation of that first trick: make Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange the Goliath, and make yourself the David. Let's take a look: Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange are "celebrated as heroes." They receive "adulatory treatment", and their "ascent to heroism" was met with a surprising "breadth of support." Meanwhile, the leakers' opponents are cast as the plucky underdogs: "To criticize the leakers," Wilentz intones, "as the legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin and a few other writers have done, is to invite moral condemnation." You can almost see him shaking in head in sadness.

I suppose if you were an alien with no knowledge of the national security debate of the past few years, you might accept Wilentz's vision of the monolithic leakers kicking around poor Jeffery Toobin and his few brave, keyboard-weilding compatriots. You might think that Wilentz and Toobin and those precious few others were the ones having their partners stopped and searched, hiding out in Russian airports, or holed up in Ecuadorian embassies.

Of course, the reality is much different. The leakers, insofar as you can lump those three together, have managed to unite Barack Obama and most of Congress—a feat I'd never image possible—in their sputtering condemnation. And the rhetoric goes far beyond that: he's a traitor; he's worse than a traitor; he deserves to be shot. And putting aside rhetoric, we have the actual harassment of these three. (Whether it's deserved or undeserved depends on the person and depends on the instance—I'd say detaining Greenwald's partner at an airport for no good reason is different than trying to get Assange to answer for alleged rape and molestation.) But someone called Jeffery Toobin mean names, so, obviously, he's the persecuted one here.


I had the idea that I would go paragraph by paragraph through Wilentz's piece and take it apart mischaracterization by mischaracterization. After rereading the near-8,000 word article a few times—really basking in its frothing melange of muck—I think I'll pass on the opportunity to roll in the mud with Wilentz. (If that's what you want, I'd check out Henry Ferrell's piece at Crooked Timber, which is a pretty stunning takedown of what he calls "[a] sorry affair, altogether.")

What's more, there's no point in getting my hands dirty; Wilentz, simply put, isn't subtle about his trompe l'oeil. My favorite example has to be his eager, salacious descriptions of Greenwald's pro bono defense work; on a number of cases, you see, Greenwald has defended Neo-Nazis' First Amendment rights. Wilentz spends a fair bit of time relishing this fact and then writes: "Greenwald’s pro bono work is not evidence of anything more than a principled lawyer providing hateful people with constitutionally guaranteed counsel." Then why did you make me sit through your drooling descriptions of Greenwald's Nazi clients? Ferrell notes another good one: "And of course, there’s lots of juicy stuff in the section on Assange, where Wilentz uses Assange’s dodgy alliance building to sort-of-sidle-up-real-close to the ‘it’s all a Russian plot, of course’ line that various cranks have been pushing on the Internet." These are but two examples. Wilentz seems to abracadabra his way though most of his shambling piece, and there's a limit to how deep I want to dive into his deception.

No, what I want to talk about is the fractal nature of Wiletnz's misdirection. It's not that point by point he's so eminently full of shit; it's that from the sentence on up to the premise and in every level in between, he's trying to dupe the reader. So, it's relevant that his lede contains the bullshit-y phrase "across glossy magazine spreads" as though Wilentz has seen multiple glossy magazines spreads that praise Assange: the Nation is printed on newsprint, asshole. It's relevant because it's representative of his cavalier attitude toward truth itself.

The greatest misdirection—and one that I know Ta-Nehisi Coates is all over, too—is this: It doesn't actually matter what Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange believe. It doesn't matter if Wilentz is right that Greenwald hated immigrants. It doesn't matter if Snowden has Paul-ite poltics. It doesn't matter that Assange is a mindless narcisist. So, no, Wilentz, I don't really care if Snowden doesn't like liberals, if Assange is actually an anarchist, or if Greenwald is an obnoxiously pugnacious writer; What I care about is the debate itself—the message and not the messenger.

In the last section, Wilentz shows some desire to actually argue a point: namely that Snowden and Greenwald have overreacted to the material they've released—which is probably an argument worth having, and if Wilentz were to write 8,000 words about that, I'd read it without complaint. The problem is, that isn't the thrust of his piece; it's the twist of his knife, but not the knife itself. Wilentz spends his time writing about the evils of Greenwald's pro bono practice, the frivolity of Snowden's old frat-boy politics, and the essential twattery of Julian Assange.

It's not just that Wilentz's sentences are poorly constructed; it's not just that his points are dumb; it's also that the overwhelming majority of his piece is ad hominem and refuses to actually engage with the whole point of this fracas: the leaks.

Crossposted at the Ich Bin Ein Oberliner Reader, here.

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