Did Glenn Greenwald Play the Race Tweet?

glenn greenwaldIt’s relatively old news that there might be a racially biased double standard in white voters abandoning Obama.   Melissa Harris-Perry pointed this out in a blog postat The Nation back in September.  One white liberal in particular (Joan Walsh) got pretty bent out of shape about that characterization and pulled the cringe-worthy “some of my best friends are black” routine, which earned a public rebuke from Harris-Perry.  (ouch)

As the presidential politics begin to heat up, so do the racial politics in the Obama era, causing some white (supposedly) progressive writers to come somewhat unhinged.  The most recent case in point is Glenn Greenwald.  Greenwald is a lawyer-turned-pundit who writes for Salon.com (the same place that employs Joan Walsh).

Greenwald has been critical of Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act. The annual NDAA is the essential piece of legislation that pays U.S. soldiers’ salaries, funds equipment for troops overseas, buys ammunition, and also pays our military contractors abroad.

Greenwald is frequently identified as a writer of the left-leaning pundit class who is “disappointed with President Obama” over various policies. The debate over the NDAA (and U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan) between Greenwald and his supporters, and pro-Obama bloggers like Imani Gandy, of AngryBlackLady.com, has taken off on Twitter and resulted in some pretty ugly exchanges, like the following one.

Zerlina Maxwell writing at The Grio, recounts the Twitter throw-down very thoroughly (these two screen shots are from her piece).  On Saturday night, a blogger named “DrDawg” said this about an Obama supporter: “Obama could rape a nun live on NBC and you’d say we weren’t seeing what we were seeing.” In response, Greenwald chimed in, “No – she’d say it was justified [and] noble – that he only did it to teach us about the evils of rape.”


Not surprisingly, Twitter exploded and lots of people called out Greenwald for making a “rape joke.” Greenwald has over 68,000 followers on Twitter so when he says something there, it’s to a rather large audience (at least potentially).  But, rather than apologizing for the comment, Greenwald doubled down, saying that the reference to rape was not a metaphor and in fact Obama supporters would defend the president in the face of “ANY evil: assassinations, child-killings: EVEN rape violent crime like rape.”

In U.S. culture, the image of a black man raping a “pure” woman like a nun (read: virginal) is an incendiary reference that conjures up the legacy of lynching and the myth of the black male rapist that was used to justify that violence. Using the “nun rape smear” to make a point about political supporters of Obama has a lot of people outraged, and rightly so, perhaps chief among them are survivors of actual rape (not the political-point-making-rhetorical-rape). Greenwald got pretty defensive when he thought one of his Twitter followers was accusing him of racism (he wasn’t) and he continues to even acknowledge that the remark might have been offensive.

jessie danielsIt’s not clear what the impact of this comment is going to be for Greenwald, if for example, he’ll lose his cushy telecommuting gig with Salon.com or drop below 50,000 Twitter followers. One thing is for sure, if what we need is what legal scholar Ian Haney Lopez calls a “deep engagement” around matters of race, this kind of rhetoric isn’t helping us get there.

Jessie Daniels
Racism Review 


  1. Stephanie says

    I don’t understand why this is all and only about race. While we all know that the president is black, the person who originally posted the rape analogy, did not say the nun was white.

    Not all nuns are white. But all nuns are women. So, why is this supposed to be racially insensitive, or objectionable, but not sexist?

    • says


      I read the article again — we read them, of course, when we edit and post them — but I don’t see the gay-bashing. Certainly we would not tolerate such a thing here. Please point out what bothers you about the article.

      — Dick Price, Editor

      • dave blake says

        Daniels’ tactics makes me cringe, and I’m loath to indirectly legitimize her piece by spending ink pointing out its failings. That’s why I commented so minimally, if obtusely.

        The worst parts:

        Name-calling: Greenwald is a “lawyer-turned-pundit” and “writer of the left-leaning pundit class” who should “lose his cushy telecommuting gig with Salon.com or drop below 50,000 followers.” (She really doesn’t like pundits, though of course she wants desperately to be a well-paid, highly-followed one herself).

        Guilt by association: Joan Walsh deserves criticism by responding to the Harris-Perry piece by starting by sucking up to her in a way that was hard not to see as condescending, but how does that show that Greenwald is playing the race card?

        Straw man: Read Greenwald’s tweet, and decide if it’s as incendiary as Daniels’ own assertion itself: “The image of a black man raping a ‘pure’ woman like a nun (read: virginal) is an incendiary reference that conjures up the legacy of lynching and the myth of the black male rapist that was used to justify that violence.”

        But the affective structure of Daniels’ piece is to place herself in the company of more cogent writers such as Harris-Perry and Gandy. And she closes with Ian Henry Lopez only to attach herself to his catchphrase, “deep engagement with race”. (His argument, to the degree that it touches even peripherally on the issue of Greenwald’s tweet, cuts against Daniels’: “We are post-racial in the important sense that this seems to describe liberal politics toward race.”)

        There is something of an actual argument in her piece. All of it is taken from the Zerlina Maxwell Grio piece (none of the other writers were talking about Greenwald—though Gandy is cited against Greenwald from a separate conversation in Maxwell’s piece), which Daniels cites in places (but from which she also prints entire passages in her own voice with trivial changes which in my business—I’m a book designer-turned-pundit—we’d classify as plagiarism. Daniels: “But, rather than apologizing for the comment, Greenwald doubled down, saying that the reference to rape was not a metaphor and in fact Obama supporters would defend the president in the face of ‘ANY evil: assassinations, child-killings: EVEN rape violent crime like rape.’ Maxwell: “Instead of apologizing for the comment, Greenwald doubled down, tweeting that the reference to rape was not a metaphor and in fact Obama supporters would defend the president in the face of ‘ANY evil: assassinations, child-killings: EVEN rape violent crime like rape.’)

        So I’ll kid myself that I’m not really giving Daniels more attention than she’s due by arguing with Maxwell instead.

        There’s a reason Maxwell paraphrases Greenwald’s response tweet instead of reproducing it (tweets are by definition short, the only reason to paraphrase them is to manipulate their content). Here’s what he actually tweeted: “It is NOT a ‘rape metaphor’ [Greenwald’s scare quotes]: it’s a statement they they’d defend ANY evil: assassinations, child-killings: EVEN rape.” Greenwald is specifically defending himself against the charge that he’s using a “rape metaphor”, that is attacking Obama by suggesting that his actions are equivalent to rape, but rather characterizing the zeal of some Obama defenders as what he sees as blind enough to excuse anything. Maxwell goes on to condemn Greenwald for “the casual nature in which Greenwald condoned the use of rape to attack those who have a different opinion from his own”. The original tweet (not Greenwald’s) may have been crude, and Greenwald may have commented on it too casually, but there’s no justification for claiming his comment constitutes condoning rape. Again, like Daniels, an incendiary argument tactic.

        For 30 years the right has been successful with highly incendiary exposition, and some say we should fight fire with fire and start employing their tactics. I say that when you smell fire, you’re always better off reaching for a hose than a matchbook. Republican rhetoric consists of a carefully structured set of disconnected appeals to deep-set prejudices that relies on our short span of attention. Their arguments don’t stand up next to what they said a decade ago, or a year ago, or often even a sentence ago. Our job is to shine light on the disconnects, not to pile more on. Obama himself, to praise the man I’m defending Greenwald for attacking, is a dedicated fire-putter-outer.

        More important, the lesson that forms the core of my political belief, and where I hope we are diametrically opposed to our right-wing counterparts, is that I believe that the ends don’t justify the means, but rather are determined by them. However much one thinks that Obama needs the left to rally around him, the path there won’t be paved with unscrupulous and lazy argument.

        p.s.: You asked why I said that this article constitutes gay-bashing: Greenwald is gay, and she’s bashing him. I could flesh that out, just as Daniels spent her energy constellating her attacks on Greenwald, but structurally they’re identical. Everybody should try formulating an argument à la Daniels, it’s like having donuts for dinner, and then a little cake for dessert.

        • says


          Right, I asked what part of the article was gay-bashing.

          And it’s because Greenwald is gay, so you say, and she’s bashing him.

          I’m not doubting that you’re right about Greenwald’s sexual orientation. I don’t know and really don’t care.

          But there’s nothing in her piece to say he’s gay nor, most importantly, any indication that she’s “bashing” him because of his sexual orientation.

          So, to me, that’t not gay-bashing.

          I see that you have a number of other objections, which you state cogently. Thank you for that.

          I do agree that parsing tweets is a losing exercize.


          — Dick

          • dave blake says

            Sorry Dick, I see that I was still being obtuse. It’s criticism best to take seriously, because by definition it has to be true.

            So as not to dignify the original article with a lengthy dissection, I made the gay-bashing charge, as a joke. I was trying to suggest that the author’s contention that Greenwald was guilty of promoting lynching by making a political point that leveraged on a rape comment was equivalent to saying that she deserved to be called a gay-basher because the person she was bashing happened to be gay. No actual gay-bashing took place.

            • says


              I was just alarmed that some gay-bashing slur might have slipped by as I posted the article.

              But your detailed commentary actually is well-taken.

              — Dick

  2. says

    Your reduction of the clamor over the NDAA to an “annual . . . essential piece of legislation that pays U.S. soldiers’ salaries . . .” left out the entire debate of indefinite detention, worldwide battlefields, military rule in our own hometowns (Posse Comitatus), due process, powers bestowed in relation to a forever-war (1984), a (supposed) veto threat by the president, and much more. [See “The power is so broad that. . . .” http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/11/28-3 ]

    In relation to Glenn Greenwald, it must be said that there are (pompous a**) aspects of him (such as not admitting he’s wrong even when confronted with evidence) which are definitely and totally unbecoming at times. As a result of experiencing the latter, he is not one whom there is ever much sense of need or desire in defending. Still, as far as this scenario, it is true that he should have either ignored the insensitive comment or called it out – instead of going along. However, as opposed to your accusations and insinuations, his focus included the “evils of rape” (“evils of,” not extolling/promoting) – without any references implicitly or explicitly whatsoever to a “black man.” Nothing was implicit or explicit toward President Obama as a “black man” – because, believe it or not, a wide percentage of true Progressives don’t care (or ever think about) what his skin color (or race) is. Among that group, (while ignoring the trappings of any “race card” charges) many feel justified in Criticizing him wholeheartedly when his actions and decisions are egregiously offensive to everything that was accomplished over our history.

    • says

      Isn’t it ironic that Glenn Greenwald and his canine physician pal don’t see that it is The Great Greenwald’s supporters who would defend him “even when confronted with evidence” that he’s wrong.

      First of all, only an insensitive misogynistic man would even use a vile rape analogy which conjures an inflammatory visual image in the minds of white racists – many of whom, contrary to popular belief, do indeed reside on the ‘progressive’ side of the street.

      SeaClearly says on the one hand that “it is true that he should have either ignored the insensitive comment or called it out – instead of going along,” but on the other hand finds the comment “without any references implicitly or explicitly whatsoever to a “black man.””

      I agree that while on the surface the comment does not seem to explicitly carry any racial implications, but if one were to look just beneath the surface the way black men have learned to do, as a survival mechanism, one might be able to see more clearly the implicit message.

      That conjured imagery of President Obama raping nuns, who are virtually always presumed to be white women, is reminiscent of the double crossing duplicitous ‘mulatto,’ character from DW Griffith’s 1915 silent film, “The Birth of a Nation,” who upon achieving political power begins to use it to take away the freedoms and rights of ‘good honest white men’ while plotting to ravish the pure-as-the-driven-snow white woman against her will.

      You see, believe it or not, Mr. Griffith understood something about evoking a visceral response in the white male psyche. His movie, which portrayed a heroic Ku Klux Klan rescuing the poor victimized white Southerners from miscegenistic blacks running amok, eating fried chicken and watermelon while legislating barefooted in the Statehouse was Hollywood’s first blockbuster movie.

      The Birth of a Nation helped boost the membership of the Klan to include about 15% of the nation’s eligible population, approximately 4 to 5 million men by its second peak in the mid-1920s. It was screened in the White House for then-President Woodrow Wilson who said of the film, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Wilson is said to have boasted of his Ku Klux Klan membership during his reelection campaign in 1916.

      The point is, whether he or she was aware of it or not, whatever his or her ethnicity, DrDawg was engaging in subconscious racial dog whistle blowing. Mr. Greenwald of the know-it-all intellectual overinflated self perception, seconded the motion without taking the time or having the knowledge or historical perspective or progressive instincts to analyze the ill-conceived straw man for what it was: an opportunity to hurl a cheap insult at Obama supporters as some sort of blind deniers of reality.

      And I agree with you. It is absolutely true that “a wide percentage of true Progressives don’t care (or ever think about) what his skin color (or race) is.” (I’m presuming you mean white progressives?) I’m going to go a step further than you and say that is true of a large majority of “true Progressives.”

      However I do not believe it is true for all that wear the title of progressive like some kind of flag lapel pin. The analogy used in the ‘tweet’ was crude and uncalled-for. There are many other strong images that could have been used to make the point. The tweeter(?) had to go out of their way to come up with an exaggeration that would be that offensive. President Obama wouldn’t do that. NBC wouldn’t broadcast it. And even the most loyal of his supporters would call for his arrest and imprisonment.

      I have plenty of diverse opinions on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, but this time I found myself drawn into a long-winded agreement with author Jessie Daniels when she says “around matters of race, this kind of rhetoric isn’t helping us….”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *