The Ideology Behind Michael Grunwald's Repugnant Assange Tweet

The Time correspondent wrote, "I can't wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange."
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julian assange full full.jpg
This is Julian Assange of Wikileaks, whose murder would be terrible, seeing as how he's a human being.(Reuters)

On Saturday, Michael Grunwald, a senior correspondent at Time, stoked controversy by tweeting, "I can't wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange." The tweet triggered an immediate backlash among people who believe that murder is wrong, and that expressing preemptive delight at the prospect of defending murder is wrongheaded and repugnant. Shortly thereafter, Grunwald apologized to his followers, called his tweet "dumb," and deleted it. Folks on Twitter called for his job. Even though, as Amy Davidson noted at the New Yorker, "Grunwald seems a bit oblivious as to what was wrong with what he said," I'm allergic to anyone being fired over any one tweet, especially if they express regret for sending it.

We're all better than we are at our worst moments.*

It is nevertheless worth dwelling on his tweet a moment longer, because it illuminates a type that is common but seldom pegged in America. You see, Grunwald is a radical ideologue. It's just that almost no one recognizes it. The label "radical ideologue" is usually used to describe Noam Chomsky or members of the John Birch Society. We think of radical ideologues as occupying the far right or left. Lately a lot of people seem to think that The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald is a radical (often they wrongly conflate the style with which he expresses his views with their substance).

But Grunwald graduated from Harvard, spent a decade at the Washington Post, and now works as a senior correspondent at Time. How radical could someone with that resume possibly be?

Extremely so. 

That doesn't mean that he's a bad guy, or that he shouldn't be a journalist. But as someone who finds Grunwald's ideology as problematic and wrongheaded as I'm sure he finds aspects of my worldview, I tire of the fact that people who share it are treated as pragmatic centrists while their critics, whether on the libertarian right or the civil liberties left, are dismissed as impractical ideologues.

Grunwald's tweet took a lot of centrists by surprise, as if it was way beyond the pale. And I think it was! But it didn't surprise me. It was totally consistent with his ideology for him to write, "I can't wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange." The mental mistake that led to the tweet is present elsewhere in his work, and springs from his worldview. Don't take my word for it. Prior to issuing his apology, Grunwald briefly stood behind his remark, explaining his thinking as follows:

It's a fascinating statement.

He reflexively assumed that objections to a tweet about the extrajudicial killing of a transparency activist came from the "Don't Tread on Me crowd" -- as if only right-wing libertarians would object to such a sentiment! The link delivers us to a Time essay, "Tread on Me," that surveys a whole range of controversies and lays out his overarching attitude, which manages to combine anti-libertarian and anti-civil-libertarian aspects. 

Now, no one thinks of Time as a magazine that publishes radicals. But Grunwald's article fit comfortably in its pages, and he cited the article to explain the thinking that made him eager to defend a murder. Perhaps Time occasionally publishes material that is far more ideological than most of its readers or even its editors realize -- a radicalism not of the left or right, but of the establishment.

Consider a passage from the essay:

America was born from resistance to tyranny, and our skepticism of authority is a healthy tradition. But we're pretty free. And the "don't tread on me" slippery-slopers on both ends of the political spectrum tend to forget that Big Government helps protect other important rights. Like the right of a child to watch a marathon or attend first grade without getting killed -- or, for that matter, the right to live near a fertilizer factory without it blowing up your house.

Our government needs to balance these rights, which is tough sometimes. But not always. Requiring gun owners to pass background checks and restricting access to high-capacity magazines would be a minuscule price to pay to help avoid future Newtowns and Auroras. If the FBI waits a few days to read Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the Miranda boilerplate he's already heard a million times on Law and Order, the Republic will survive, and the authorities might learn something that will help prevent another tragedy. (In fact, if America's ubiquitous surveillance network hadn't captured Tsarnaev on video, he might still be at large.) Even in a free-enterprise system -- especially in a free-enterprise system -- a factory owner's right to run his business without government interference is trumped by the public-safety rights of the local community.

This isn't the time to debate all these issues individually, but they are unalike in a way Grunwald shows no sign of recognizing. Background checks for gun owners would come about via democratic legislation. If the bill passed, it could be challenged in court. And it could be found, by way of an established legal process, to pass constitutional muster or else to violate the Constitution.

Denying a particular American his Miranda rights, because we're really sure this one is guilty, and hey, terrorism!, is objectionable in different ways, which cannot be waived away with "the republic will survive." Preserving a culture of due process is, in fact, vital to the survival of a free society. No single violation is fatal, but Grunwald appears oblivious to the danger of undermining the culture, and to how radical it is to call for one-off departures of convenience from long established norms. Using the same logic, one could argue that, hey, torturing Dzhokar Tsarnaev might've prevented further tragedy, and it isn't like the republic wouldn't survive another waterboarding!

Of course, the republic can also survive torturing no one, and reading every accused criminal their rights.

Even setting aside the merits, suffice it to say that the judge who decided to advise Tsarnaev of his rights was, in fact, showing deference to long-established criminal-justice procedures. She embraced a protocol arrived at through a normal constitutional process -- one in which stakeholders already pondered the proper balance between liberty, security, individual rights, and law enforcement needs. Grunwald was advancing a far more radical proposition: that a painstakingly developed, widely accepted, longstanding process should be abandoned in one special case. He invoked "the republic will still stand" language to make himself seem like a pragmatist.

But no. Calling for ad hoc departures in highly charged cases is not pragmatic. Doing it by the book is pragmatic.

Grunwald's position was radical in its departure from established norms, and informed by an ideology that discounts the importance of process. Little surprise that he seems to discount the rule of law. It reduces the discretion people have to implement the policies he prefers.

Here's a later passage:

In the Obama era, Tea Party Republicans like Senator Rand Paul have portrayed the U.S. government as a threat to individual liberty, an oppressive force in American life. They just want government to leave us alone. But while the "stand with Rand" worldview is quite consistent -- against gun restrictions, traffic-light cameras, drone strikes, antidiscrimination laws, antipollution laws and other Big Brother intrusions into our private lives -- it's wrong. And most of us know it's wrong, which is why we celebrate our first responders, our soldiers, our law enforcers. They're from the government, and they're here to help. We know our government is fallible, because it's made up of people, but we still count on it to protect us from terrorists, from psychos with guns, from exploding factories. We also need it to protect us from floods and wildfires, from financial meltdowns and climate change. We can't do that kind of thing ourselves.

I don't want to imply that we live in a Game of Thrones episode -- our nights are dark but only occasionally full of terrors -- but last week, an Elvis impersonator trying to poison the President didn't even make the front page. There's dangerous stuff out there, and while it's probably fun to stand with Rand, I'm more inclined to stand with the public servants keeping us safe, even when the al-Qaeda operative they ice in Yemen is an American citizen, even when they shut down an entire city to hunt for a single teenager, and yes, even when they try to regulate coal plants and oil rigs and Wall Street casinos that would greatly prefer to be left alone. That's why I pay my taxes, and that's why I don't feel like I'm being tyrannized when I pay them.

Like the most extreme libertarian ideologue, Grunwald treats all instances of wanting to limit government power as if they are the same. Opposition to pollution laws is bundled with opposition to drone strikes on Americans. Grunwald seems totally oblivious to the fact that it is perfectly consistent to celebrate our soldiers and to limit the instances in which they can kill their fellow citizens. He writes as if a filibuster against drones is tantamount to saying, "We can do it all ourselves." Notice how quickly this worldview causes him to unworriedly dismiss the act of putting an American citizen on a secret kill list without charges or trial and executing him on one man's order -- and to conflate declaring martial law to catch a single teen with regulating coal plants. 

These things are not alike!

The irony is that Grunwald sees perfectly clearly that only the most extreme ideologue would be against all the government acts he bundles together -- but is oblivious to the fact that anyone who is breezily comfortable with all the things he mentions is also an extremist ideologue. He goes on:

I guess you could call me a statist. I'm not sure we need public financing for our symphonies or our farmers or our mortgages ... but we do need Big Government to attack the big collective-action problems of the modern world. Our rights are not inviolate. Just as the First Amendment doesn't let us shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater [note to Grunwald: bad example], the Second Amendment shouldn't let us have assault weapons designed for mass slaughter. And if the authorities decided it was vital to ask Tsarnaev about his alleged murder of innocents before reminding him of his Fifth Amendment rights to lawyer up, I won't second-guess their call. The civil-liberties purists of the ACLU are just as extreme as the gun purists of the NRA, or the anti-regulatory purists in business groups like the Club for Growth.

Again, this is analytically muddled. It's true that government is needed to tackle some big collective-action problems of the modern world. That explains his desire for environmental regulation. But it hardly explains his unexplained comfort with extrajudicial killing and ad hoc changes to criminal-justice norms using a staggeringly naive "if the authorities decided it was vital" standard. (Remember when John Yoo took that one to its logical conclusion? It depends on why the president wants to crush the testicles of the child ...) Grunwald seems to stand for whatever it is that he and the authorities think is best in a given instance, to hell with any procedural constants or absolute checks on power, like the Bill of Rights, getting in the way. Let's just be clear: that worldview has a lot of ideological assumptions baked into it, and is totally contrary to the system laid out in our written Constitution, as well as the real world approach that we've followed successfully for decade after decade, with departures in times of war that we almost always came to regret. To repeat myself, Grunwald's position is the radical one.**

I am not saying Grunwald is a bad journalist.

He is perfectly capable of producing excellent work. But like any radical ideologue, there are times when his ideology blinds him to reality. He is blind to the many instances in American history when government perpetrated terrible abuses, or else he bizarrely thinks that powerful people abusing power is something that only happened in the past. It takes a profound disregard for the subjects of civil liberties, executive power, and their importance to write a 2013 article unironically titled, "Man of His Word: Obama Likely to Deliver on His Inaugural Promises (Again)." Little surprise that Grunwald thinks that New York's Michael Bloomberg, who shares his radical ideology, has been "an amazing mayor," even as he closes out his term trying to fingerprint poor people. But he also seems to genuinely not understand why some progressives dislike Bloomberg.

On certain subjects, especially when engaged in deep reporting, Grunwald's work shows no signs of being radically ideological, and while I haven't read his book, I presume the accolades for it are well deserved. I also presume that Grunwald, who seems like a very smart guy, would be somewhat less of a radical ideologue if the excesses of his particular ideology were identified, examined and challenged half as much as conservatism or progressivism or libertarianism. But Grunwald's ideology has no established name, and isn't fleshed out nearly as well as its cousins -- its adherents are often unaware that they are people with ideological streaks.

Sometimes we say stupid things that have no logical connection to our larger belief system. That isn't what happened when Grunwald wrote that tweet. He trusts those in power not to abuse it, is averse to absolute liberties (like the one about not being deprived of life without due process of law), and regards established legal and prudential protocols as overvalued formalities that gets in the way of pragmatism. I find his ideology dangerous precisely because it might lead a man to defend an idea like the extrajudicial killing of a transparency activist who undermines the establishment. In other words, Grunwald said something stupid that was logically connected to his belief system. Having acknowledge it was dumb, he ought to reflect on the belief system. I don't expect him to give up his ideology, or to embrace mine, but perhaps he could be more attuned to its excesses, and accord more respect to the wisdom of civil libertarians. Slippery slopes may seem more real to him now that his own brain briefly slid from libertarians worry too much about worst-case scenarios to eagerness to defend a murder.
 

__
*Everyone with a personal archive years deep is better judged by its contents than a fleeting, off-the-cuff statement, however ugly. It is worth nothing that Grunwald would likely be fired had he tweeted that he'd eagerly write in defense of a drone strike that targeted and killed Hillary Clinton or John Boehner or Lloyd Blankfein or Oprah Winfrey or any number of people whose lives the American establishment implicitly value more than a figure like Julian Assange. In that case, I'd be much lonelier in my argument that no one should be fired for a single tweet. But Grunwald managed to choose a relatively powerless target, and is therefore safe. 

**Call the ACLU impractical purists all you want. Then look back two and three and four and five decades, and ask whose track record looks better, the ACLU or its opponents.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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