Two Perspectives on Political Resistance, Critique, Activism and Media: Interviews with Glenn Greenwald and Jamie McClelland

Posted on July 9, 2010


I know I’ve promised to write a big post about the US Social Forum, which I attended last week. In my humble attempts to wait and do it justice, I think I’ve really neglected to write what a big influence it had on my current feelings about the prospects of social justice and anti-war movements. As I’ve written before, for the past few years I’ve been caught in a sort of activist no-man’s land. I’m very disappointed with the left movements I’ve been involved with for nearly twenty years. At the same time, my search for better alternatives–particularly in cyberspace, have not necessarily been fruitful. In both worlds, however, I’ve found great role models and examples, and I have been lucky enough to have conducted on-line interviews with two incredible and tireless agents of change: Glenn Greenwald, the increasingly  well-known and influential Salon blogger, and Jamie McClelland an information  technology and media  activist and organizer; McClelland was part of the collective that provided the information technology infrastructure for this conference of over ten thousand participants, including live web-video feeds.

Though seemingly working opposite sides of the street, I think the one thing that unites these two is the fact that they looked at political change as something they could involve themselves in directly, without waiting to ask someone in authority how or when. They saw areas where their skills could be maximized, jumped right in and invited others to follow.

One minor note. The interviews were conducted via email and several months apart.

Jamie McClelland/May First People Link—-Interview Conducted June 2010 via email:

What is the Social Forum?

The Social Forum is a global process that started in Brazil in 2000 in response to many global events, including the massive protests in Seattle in 1999 that shut down the WTO meeting. The goal of the forum was to organize pro-actively and globally. Just like the WEF organizes the richest people of the world every year in Davos, Switzerland, the social forum organizers envisioned the rest of us making our own plans for the planet in an open and collaborative way.

The social forum movement rapidly grew into a global phenomenon, spawning regional and country-specific forums everywhere. The US first organized a nation-wide forum in 2007. Detroit 2010 was the second.

How did you become involved in the forum? What attracted you to it?

The first US social forum in 2007 was my first experience with the social forum movement. I was attracted to it because it was one of the few major events that was pulling together the broader left under a common identity, providing my first sense of a coherent leftist movement in this country after decades of political organizing. My political experience from the 90’s was very fractured, making the experience of 2007 a real transformative one.

I’m going to be calling you an activist for the rest of this interview. What does the word mean to you? Are you an activist? Should people aspire to become activists?

Yes, I’m an activist. To me it means someone who tries to move people politically. I think everyone should be an activist.

Your main focus as an activist for many years has been in IT, something that people generally don’t associate with political change.

—How does IT fit into creating lasting political change and contribute to social  justice?

The degree to which people associate technology with political change often corresponds to their politics. We find that people with a global revolutionary political outlook have no difficulty grasping the value of a free/open global communications system and it’s potential for creating revolutionary change. Unfortunately, in the 90’s in the US, the popularization of the Internet coincidentally corresponded with the professionalization of political nonprofit work and an increased dependence on foundation funding.

Suddenly, politicized college graduates found that they could make a living doing work that, while not a full expression of their politics, was at least more politically palatable than working in the corporate world. A large class of activists began developing politics and practices that fit well with a foundation-driven funding stream: clear and “realistic” goals, emphasis on measurable results, focus on the “needy”, practice over theory, service over organizing, locally focused projects, professionalization and compensation for all work performed. Within this climate, the Internet was at best a tool to help get things done and at worst an elitist movement that was excluding the “truly needy”.

The social forum movement has changed everything by exposing the real value of the Internet to activism. The social forum is our first modern global movement and it would not have been possible without a free and open system that has been built by and for the movement.

Its been a long and frustrating set of decades and things seem to only have become worse.

—How do you remain focused and positive about the work you do, rather than succumb to despair?

I think the secret is to look outside the United States. The advances made by the left in the 16 years since the Zapatistas emerged in Mexico are unparalleled in any other 16 year period in history.  The democratization of Latin America alone has been staggering and the success of left-wing movements throughout the continent is very inspiring and fills me with hope.

What is the May First collective? What is its origin?

Well, May First/People Link is not a collective, we’re a membership-based political organization with a focus on the Internet. The organization is the result of a merger between People Link, a progressive Internet provider founded in 1994 and May First Technology Collective, a nonprofit collective technology consulting firm started in 1999. We merged in 2005 because we didn’t see a political future in either of the paths our organizations were taking. And, we shared a belief that the Internet had tremendous political potential to move the left forward dramatically.

The membership model has not exactly proven lucrative, but it has been tremendously successful politically by allowing us to pursue a strategy based entirely on the intersection of the left and the Internet, without the constraints of foundation requirements or compromises required within a consulting relationship.

Some would criticize participation in the social forum for overreaching and focusing internationally, rather than focusing on domestic issues with Americans.

—How do you respond to this criticism?

Ha! I think the opposite. For a movement based on international origins, I think we could have had a much stronger international focus. And, I think an international focus is critically important because the US can’t solve our problems alone. The assumption that we can solve our own problems is both untrue and one of the biggest obstacles we face.

Very few people I’ve spoken to know about the Social Forum.

—How can Social Forum create an increased profile?

—Should it?

The social forum is a gathering of the left, and the left is small in the United States, which is why I think it’s relatively unknown here. There’s no question that we should increase its profile. I think that task is inseparable from increasing the profile of the left itself.

The experience of the last twenty years, since the first Gulf invasion, and particularly the last eight years have shown an increasingly disturbing lack of efficacy for political activism. Marches and demonstrations, while unprecedented between 2002 and 2006, were surprisingly ineffective in either changing the media narrative or causing any political impact.

—Is activism as we’ve known it—marches, demonstrations, direct action and  non-violent resistance—dead?

—Is it time to come up with something new? Or have we not tried hard enough making the old forms work?

Those tactics, along with road blocks, worked very well in Bolivia resulting in a president literally being kicked out of office and the country. The problem isn’t the tactics, it’s the movement. Re-focusing our attention on the rest of the world has the greatest potential for re-inspiring a vibrant left, one that can learn how to work in collaboration with other global movements. “Fixing” the left by changing tactics doesn’t address the core problem. As we inspire new people to join the left, the right tactics will emerge.

What are your goals for this year’s social forum?

—What are your goals for the social forum as a project?

My main goal is to move us beyond collaborating on a shared and open space to collaborating on common political goals. I think the climate change organizing happening provides a very good opportunity for that.

It  seems that the last six or so years of activism have created a new sub- group of activists, members of elites and intelligentsia who have been able to voice their opinion through the internet in a way that they could not or would not have done in by-gone days of meatspace-only activism. Internet communities such as Dailykos and Firedoglake, along with increasingly popular bloggers such as Glenn Greenwald have created a previously unheard voice that has had some success in moving political change. In a certain sense, since the opinion of such people matters, these “netroots”, have had a greater impact than old school flesh and blood activism has had in the past few decades

—Is this positive? Are more radical ideas for change being marginalized at the expense of giving  more institutional actors a greater voice?

—How can real world activists from more diverse strata compete with this? It seems like they were screaming in a vacuum for years, and then forgotten as new activists with less focused and more self-serving visions of change take the plate…

The Internet has expanded the political scope of the mainstream media, which is a positive thing. But it hasn’t changed what movement-based media is, which is media created and distributed to serve the needs of a political movement. Dailykos and Firedoglake bloggers are not movement media – they are professionals who are saying some positive things as they build their careers. I don’t think the expansion of mainstream media is making it harder for movement media to flourish – if anything it’s making it easier as people grow accustomed to alternative means of having information delivered to them.

However, we do have a lot of work to build a vibrant movement media – and that is critically important. We have many groups  often referred to as the “alternative” media. It is full of people and organizations that are part of the broader left – Paper Tiger TV, Democracy Now, Free Speech TV, etc. Despite decades of hard work, they are still under-valued in the left. And, they are still taking too much of a “service” role to the left instead of taking their place and responsibility as full-fledged members of this movement. For example, when Amy Goodman was arrested at the RNC protests in 2008 the first and loudest complaint was: you can’t do that, she’s a journalist. Make no mistake: Amy Goodman *is* a journalist and what happened to her was an outrageous mis-carriage of justice. However, hundreds of our own were arrested along with Amy Goodman who either didn’t have the privilege of claiming “journalist” status or did not choose to. The I-Witness video activists, for example, suffered a traumatizing raid by dozens of cops with guns drawn.

The forum has quite a few cultural and entertainment events. What’s the value of including a culture around political activism?

The “culture” of activism over the last 2 decades has been like watching the same channel: endless meetings. Cultural projects have been tremendously important in broadening this culture and expanding the ways people can be part of the movement. They are also critical ways of injecting ideas and opinions into our consciousness.

Glenn Greenwald, Constitutional Lawyer/Writer—-Interview Conducted March 2010 via email:

Journalism and media are going through a rapid sea change. How would you categorize your role as a “blogger”.

In general, bloggers who write critically about media coverage, and me in particular, perform two primary functions:  (1) to expose the flaws and biases of establishment journalism, which can either lead to reforms (rarely) or undermine their credibility (more frequently); and (2) to provide an alternative to those who no longer trust those outlets.

I don’t believe bloggers can or should entirely replace establishment journalism, but they can definitely compete when it comes to many of the functions journalism performs, and can influence what it does in those areas where they can’t compete.

Do you feel that name applies?

The word “blogger” has become one of those words used so inconsistently that it is now impoverished of any real meaning.  It was originally used to distinguish those who worked for large media companies from citizens who exploited the technology of the Internet to perform many of those same functions independently or, alternative, those who reported in print publications or on television versus those whose work was primarily online.  But now those categories have merged, as “bloggers” have been increasingly hired by media outlets, and as establishment journalists take to the Internet to act like bloggers.

I’d say the primary differences now are that (1) bloggers still retain more editorial independence than establishment journalists; and (2) bloggers are much freer of conventional notions of “journalistic objectivity,” in that bloggers are free to express themselves however they want and, more important, to openly engage in activism in order to affect political outcomes.  I still consider myself a “blogger” because both of those are true of me.

Are you a journalist? If so/not, why?

I’d say that I perform journalistic functions — I investigate what power factions are doing, try to shed light on it, conduct interviews with experts, inform my readership — but I’d say I’m more of a “blogger” than a “journalist,” using the definition I provided above.

Does objectivity remain important or simply a paradigm that no longer makes sense?

It depends what one means by “objectivity.”  Journalists have twisted the term to mean:  “one simply conveys what all sides claim but does not conclude who is right or wrong, who is telling the truth or not.”  That form of objectivity is corrupted and a major reason why establishment journalism is failing.  I do not think that paradigm makes any sense; it is more inclined to mislead than illuminate.

To me, “objectivity” means following the facts and reality wherever it might lead, without regard to allegiances to any faction or individual, but instead to the truth.  In that regard, “objectivity” is vital.

One of the most salient differences between traditional media and online media is the immediacy of response. In your comments section as well as that of others, articles generate a “real time” discourse, and often provoke updates of the original article on the same day, or can engender an ongoing political-blog dynamic that affects policy in real time…

—Is this dynamic something you consciously rely on?…

It’s definitely something on which I rely.  It’s that immediacy and interaction with readers and critics that is the most important check on what one does.  Because of that interaction and immediacy, no error can survive very long, no logical fallacy can remain undetected, and it’s impossible to hide from weaknesses in one’s own argument.  Knowing that you’re going to have to face immediate feedback from very smart, informed and opinionated people is a vital tool for forcing yourself to meet high standards of accuracy and honesty.  Additionally, by being able to constantly expand upon the work one does, it remains vibrant and exciting, rather than stagnant.

Beyond that, working with others — one’s readers — simply makes what one does that much stronger.  Many of the arguments I’ve made or stories I’ve publicized that received the most attention, had the most influence, came directly from my readers or other bloggers.  It’s the difference between working alone and working with an army of smart and like-minded allies.  Obviously, those who do the latter will be much stronger than those who confine themselves to the former.

—are there any specific examples of this dynamic that stand out for you as having had a noticeable impact on policy in your writing?

It happens on a virtually daily basis.  I watch very little television, so a large amount of the media criticism I do comes from being alerted by readers and commenters to what someone did or said during a news program.  It is extremely common that after I write something, a commenter will bring to my attention the strongest piece of evidence for what I said that I previously didn’t know.  And many times, weaknesses in my argument become apparent from commenters who criticize them, which then forces me to shore up the argument or concede the weaknesses, all of which make my work much more reliable, persuasive and credible.

You come from a law background, where you focused on constitutional issues. Has that provided any advantages, disadvantages over the path taken by mainstream journalists?

Lawyers are trained to separate their emotions and personal biases from their analysis of issues.  Lawyers necessarily have to be able to advocate all sides of a matter — the interests of the client dictate what the positions one takes, not one’s own beliefs — and being able to remove oneself from one’s bias that way and look at things from a completely different perspective is vital in avoiding tribalistic, reflexive and self-centered thinking.

Beyond that, when one represents citizens in Constitutional cases, one is representing the relatively powerless (the citizen) against the powerful (the state).  In general, that was the nature of my law practice.  I was therefore required constantly to devise means for leveling the playing field – for making the powerless more powerful, and making the powerful more vulnerable.  That is a critical skill to have for real journalism, where one is attempting to subvert the interests of those in power.

Studying the Constitution in particular provides all sorts of advantages.  One of the principal purposes of that document is to shield minority rights from majoritarian desires, and it thus orients you to the dangers of mob rule and the need to defend the most vulnerable against it.  But most important, the primary concern of the Constitution is to prevent what the Founders regarded as a virtual inevitability:  the way in which political leaders would be corrupted by power, particularly unchecked power.  And that’s what forms my core belief that nothing is more important than providing adversarial checks against the society’s elites.  Since that is ostensibly the purpose of journalism, understanding that is a huge advantage.

You live in Brazil for personal reasons. How do you feel living in another country affects your work, if at all, in the blogging age? How does this reflect on traditional reporting, either good or bad?

As a logistical matter, being in Brazil has had almost no impact on my work.  Technology is such that I can access all information, speak to anyone with complete ease, and stay abreast of all events the same as if I were in the U.S.  The only real impact it has had is that I am forced to turn down many TV appearances, when the shows cannot or will not accommodate guests from Rio de Janeiro.  But with the quickly emerging Skype technology, even that barrier is breaking down.

More substantively, living in a foreign country expands one’s perspective in critical ways.  When you live in a country where you really love the culture, people and society, it’s impossible to fall victim any longer to American Exceptionalism — you can still appreciate the uniquely positive aspects of American culture and politics, as I do, but there are so many uniquely positive aspects which all cultures offer and America doesn’t, that ones viscerally sees how absurd is the myth of Exceptionalism.  It also provides great insight into how the actions of the U.S. affect the rest of the world — both in terms of its importance and its limits.

Perhaps most important is the buffer that living in Brazil provides.  I’m not constantly interacting with people in Washington and New York, and virtually never see them.  They’re not my social circle.  I therefore don’t care what they think or how they react to my work, and can stay relatively more removed from the dangers of group think and peer pressure.  The distance also enables me to keep a more balanced perspective.  That is a vital factor in my ability to write independently and without regard to who agrees or is offended.

You’ve been an increasingly frequent guest on mainstream media, specifically on MSNBC, and on such personality driven news shows as Morning Joe, Rachel Maddow, and Dillon Ratigan. Some would say that its inevitable that such connections will affect your reporting, especially as so much of your work focuses on media criticism. How do you balance the inevitable growing access brought by your popularity with the watchdog role?

That’s a difficult question in general.  I think it’s important to remain independent and outside of political and media power circles, but I also think it’s irresponsible to stay so far away from it that you lose your ability to have an impact.  I’m only doing what I’m doing because I believe the work I do can have a positive impact, and so I think I have the obligation to find ways to make that happen and to avoid being marginalized.

Ultimately, one has to rely on one’s personal integrity to resist the temptations to temper what one writes in exchange for access of that type.  Fortunately, or otherwise, my personality just doesn’t allow me to suppress what I say out of fear of offending those who can provide advantages.  If I find myself doing that, I begin to look at what I do as a real burden and see myself as exactly what I don’t want to be, and that provides the best check on ensuring that doesn’t happen.

Who have been your greatest influences as a blogger/journalist?

What convinced me to begin blogging was my perception that very high levels of analysis, intelligence and passion existed in the political blogosphere, and I wanted to be a part of that.  The blogger I found to exhibit those attributes more than any other was Digby, who simply has the capacity of insight and the ability to express that few others have.  And many of her most impressive observations continue to shape how I see things.  Since then, there are all sorts of journalists and commentators — Dana Priest, Noam Chomsky, Charlie Savage, Amy Goodman — who influence what I do and how I think.

You recently wrote a piece about government investigation of the “leak” site wikileaks, in terms of the on-going erosion of investigative journalism. You noted that investigative journalism suffers from institutional weaknesses of co-option as well as a dubious future due to the erosion of traditional newspapers. Can you see bloggers and the safe place for insiders provided by wikileaks as a viable alternative to mainstream investigative journalism as it stands today?

Bloggers and sites like WikiLeaks can definitely cure many of the flaws of establishment journalism, and have done so in countless ways.  But the problem is that the Government is so vast and far-reaching that it still takes a huge amount of resources to provide real checks on what they do.  Someone needs to be in a war zone for months covering it, or investigating conditions at Walter Reed for months while doing nothing else, or litigating against the Government to pry secret documents it won’t release.  These are very expensive and resource-intensive undertakings, and while some alternatives have arisen to replace failed media institutions, they are still needed.

Along with some other bloggers, you recently created Accountability Now, an organization dedicated to mounting primary challenges in Democratic legislative races. This is a pretty marked difference from the prototype establishment journalist, who would necessarily seek to occult any direct connections to political action they were involved in. How would you defend yourself from criticism that such work diminishes your credibility and makes you overly partisan?

I’m not interested in providing commentary for its own sake.  I’m interesting in affecting outcomes, and so I see the activism I do as a vital supplement to the commentary and writing I do.  I think it elevates one’s credibility, not diminishes it, when one is honest with readers about one’s political perspectives and objectives.

You’re fairly public about your decision to live in Brazil as a way of circumventing laws in the US that prevent you from getting married and thus extending a VISA to your partner, which would normally accrue for heterosexual couples. Has your experience as a disenfranchised member of American society affected your decision to blog?

–how has it affected your perspective on government power and social justice?

–is justice always a question of law? Or is there a moral/social component that cannot be captured by the American legal structure?

My personal situation in having to live in Brazil didn’t directly affect my decision to begin blogging, because the issues on which I focused then – Bush’s radicalism and lawlessness, America’s growing imperialism, the oppressive political climate, the failures of the political press and other institutions — did not have anything to do with the oppressive same-sex marriage laws that prevent me from living in the U.S. with my partner.

But certainly, more generally, the experience of being gay in the U.S. and this specific injustice helps my perspective in many ways.  I’m glad I did not grow up with full, unfettered privileges because people who do have a much harder time with empathy for others and with anger over injustices.

Law is a very imperfect vehicle for achieving moral and social justice, but it’s also the only real option for living in a society that can offer it.  As John Adams observed, the only two choices we really have are to be a nation of men or a nation of law.  As imperfect as the latter is, it inevitably is vastly preferable to the former.

Its been a long period of declining prospects for change in the United States, culminating with the legislative Democratic sweep and Obama win of 2010, which have brought little conspicuous change, and indeed, as some say, may have institutionalized the worst elements of the Bush years. On a personal level, how do you get up in the morning and do this every day without giving in to negativity?

It’s been more of a battle recently than it had been in the past to resist defeatism and bitterness.  But all one has to do is look at history to know that any structures created by human beings can be altered, torn down and/or replaced by other human beings.  When one fails, there’s a tendency to proclaim that it simply cannot be done; that’s a way of excusing one’s failure and relieving oneself of the responsibility to try.  In reality, when one fails, it’s simply because one has not yet found the right way to change things.

I find our political culture so rife with corruption, and the effects of that around the world so harmful and intense, that the motivation to change it always ends up overwhelming the temptation of defeatism.  I see it as a vital challenge to figure out how I can best contribute to changing all of that.

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