Graeme Wood

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Review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

Review of No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Long before Edward Snowden selected Glenn Greenwald as the bucket into which he would direct his NSA leaks, Greenwald enjoyed a reputation among his fellow American political bloggers as a man to avoid provoking. He lives in a compound in Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by his beloved dogs, and his style in argument resembles the behavior of a mastiff protecting a beloved chewtoy. Counterargument meets growls and indignation, and long after the arguer has decided to move on to another subject, Greenwald continues to snarl and fight, publishing post upon post, update upon update, and never conceding anything at all, even when he is clearly wrong.

 

His book about the Snowden Affair, No Place to Hide, is proof that fame and a Pulitzer Prize have not changed him, and his self-confidence remains at awesome highs. It is a book written in self-righteous anger, with a robust sense of the author’s own heroics and relentless rage at his enemies. I hasten to add that I offer this description almost entirely by way of praise, since — however sociopathic these traits might be in an individual in normal life — in a journalist or litigator (Greenwald’s former profession) they are often virtues.

 

The book breaks into two parts, the first considerably more fulfilling than the second. It first recounts the history of Greenwald’s contact with Edward Snowden, from the first cryptic email, sent from Snowden to Greenwald under the pseudonym Cincinnatus, for the Roman patriot whose selfless service saved the Roman Republic. (Lack of irony and self-criticism is a theme here.) Greenwald at first blew off Snowden’s email and later was baffled by Snowden’s encryption protocols. Only with the intervention of Laura Poitras, a more cryptographically literate filmmaker, did he realize his correspondent was offering authentic and important information, from an insider’s perspective.

 

The story of Greenwald’s trip to Hong Kong with Poitras and a colleague at the Guardian newspaper is told simply and effectively, and it reveals a few flashes of the personality of the main characters of this drama. Snowden, for all the demonstrable hubris in unilaterally spilling the secrets of the country’s biggest spy agency, discouraged Greenwald and others from making him rather than the secrets themselves the focus of the world’s attention. Aspects of his personality have leaked out, as it were, in subsequent interviews. But from Greenwald’s narrative we now know that just about everything he did was calculated, and his disclosures meticulously arranged and catalogued, rather than dumped in Greenwald’s lap indiscriminately.

 

The second part of the book summarizes the disclosures themselves and the reactions, often embarrassing, of officials and journalists. Rep. Peter T. King (R N.Y.) falsely suggested that Greenwald was threatening to release a list of U.S. intelligence agents abroad. David Gregory questioned Greenwald onMeet the Press, suggesting that he might have aided and abetted a crime by publishing Snowden’s leaks. With few exceptions, Greenwald says, the media and government preferred to persecute the messengers, rather than fix the unconstitutional, blatantly criminal conspiracies they uncovered.

 

At this point I may as well admit that my sympathies are more with Greenwald and Snowden than with their antagonists — particularly those in government who have lied about domestic spying, abdicated responsibility for fixing it, or abused their power in efforts to excuse or continue it. But in this second section, Greenwald seriously tests his supporters’ tolerance. Even an extreme advocate of freedom of speech, and all the acts of journalism that entails, can wonder whether a system that relies on the sound judgment of Snowden and Greenwald to keep its holiest secrets might be a system that needs to reevaluate how it keeps its secrets. Greenwald seems unperturbed by the power he and Snowden have. And even someone who considers the world of Washington journalism a virtual herpetarium of toadies and sycophants can acknowledge, as Greenwald does not, that just about every national security journalist in town wishes Snowden chose him or her instead of Greenwald and Poitras. He portrays himself as a truth teller in an industry of lickspittles, when in fact his government allows him his freedom, and his colleagues have awarded him their highest honor.

 

That honor is deserved. But No Place to Hide reminds us what Greenwald is and what he is not. He is not an especially talented investigative journalist — by Greenwald’s own account, Snowden practically had to hire a skywriter to convince him to learn the technology necessary to accept the leaks — but he was certainly the journalist best equipped to defend and rapidly publish the most explosive material. The journalists who wish they had published the leaks (and I’m sure this includes a number whose sour grapes lead them to criticize Snowden) would have subjected the leaks to greater scrutiny than Greenwald before they published. Greenwald spends many pages detailing his badgering of his own editor, Janine Gibson of Guardian US, to publish the leaks without delay, and without fully exploring their legal and national security implications. But I know of few journalists who would have lunged forward with Greenwald’s relentless zeal and complete lack of self-doubt. Snowden must have suspected that Greenwald would sink his fangs into the leaks in exactly this manner, using the material predictably yet energetically. If there were an industry prize for Canniest Leak, this book shows that Snowden would certainly have won it.

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Salman Rushdie’s “Joseph Anton”

The prospect of a hanging may, per Dr. Johnson, “concentrate the mind wonderfully,” but the prospect of ritual execution by an Iranian death squad evidently has the opposite effect. On the morning of February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini announced Salman Rushdie’s death sentence for The Satanic Verses, and Rushdie made his final public appearance for years. At the funeral of the travel writer Bruce Chatwin in London, he listened to Greek Orthodox monks groan out their liturgy while swinging thuribles of incense. Already he was stunned, his mind preparing to unravel. Paul Theroux — an exemplary defender of Rushdie over the next several years — at the time hissed unhelpfully from the pew behind him, “I suppose next week we’ll be here for you, Salman.”

Rushdie has taken over a decade to tell the full story of his subsequent descent into mental vertigo, panic, fear, paralysis, and depression. His memoir Joseph Anton – which touches briefly on his pre-fatwa years before he was whisked away by British cops and sheltered by a network of literary luminaries — derives its title from Rushdie’s fugitive alias, a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. (It perhaps has an echo, too, of Kafka’s Joseph K., that other victim of interminable persecution.) His British police bodyguards, provided somewhat controversially at public expense, referred to him on daily basis as “Joe.”

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Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River”

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

If the purpose of travel is to be disabused of illusions, then Ellis Hock, the protagonist of Paul Theroux’s novel The Lower River, has spent his airfare wisely. Recently separated from his bullying wife, Hock sells his Medford, Massachusetts haberdashery and sets out to the village in Malawi where he taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer forty years ago. As a young man in that village, he found and lost love, became adept at handling serpents, and spent his life’s happiest years improving the village. Everything in his life since then — a marriage undermined by his wandering eye, a business crashing toward obsolescence, a daughter greedy for an early taste of her inheritance — has reeked of failure, and eventually the temptation to escape to Africa proves irresistible.
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The Man Without a Face

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

By MASHA GESSEN
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir PutinThere is a case to be made that Vladimir Putin is the only world leader operating today with a coherent long-term strategic vision for his country. Russian policy has been derided as amoral, wicked, and misguided. But for the last ten years, since the departure of the stroke-addled boozer Boris Yeltsin, Russia has never been called unguided, and its mysterious steersman is unquestionably Putin himself.

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Tongue-Tied

Review of Michael Erard’s Babel No More.

The ability to speak multiple unrelated foreign languages fluently counts among a short list of showstopping talents, like the ability to play a Bach fugue or fly a helicopter (assuming one isn’t a harpsichordist or pilot by profession). It impresses in part because it suggests discipline, time, and effort — and, perhaps, other hidden skills.

But what if the languages came effortlessly? There are, in the history of polyglottism, a few examples of people who seem to have found a way to cheat the system and acquire languages so easily and quickly that what would normally appear a feat of discipline and erudition looks instead like savantism. These hyperpolyglots chitchat fluently in dozens of dialects, and they pick up new ones literally between meals. For the rest of us who have to slave over our verb tables, their talent resembles sorcery.
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Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

The Barnes & Noble Review published a few of my words on the death of Hitchens.

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Bob the Destroyer

The Fear

By PETER GODWIN
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

The word “autogenocide” came to English from a French coinage in the 1970s, meant to convey the self-slaughter of Cambodia in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge. The category has been a rather lonely one since then, with just a few instances of mass death that were truly self-inflicted, and could not plausibly be explained away as collateral damage in a fight against an outside enemy. The pre-eminent current example of autogenocide is Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and Peter Godwin’s new book The Fear is the most enraging account of what has happened there yet published.

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I am the Market

I Am the Market

By LUCA RASTELLO, Translated by Jonathan Hunt
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

What kind of craziness are they teaching in Italian journalism schools these days? The new generation of Italian nonfiction crime writers has gone rogue, forsaking the ancient gods of clarity and journalistic remove, and instead going so deep into criminal netherworlds that the criminals’ voices and the writers’ have become indistinguishable. Writers like Roberto Saviano have embraced the nonfiction version of what some are calling “the New Italian Epic”—a sprawling, undisciplined form whose goal is not to explain the netherworld but to become, in a way, part of it. (This undertaking can be as dangerous as it sounds, as in the case of Saviano, whose 2006 exposé Gomorrah so angered the criminal syndicates of southern Italy that they put a contract on his life.)

 

At 192 pages, Luca Rastello’s I am the Market is the shortest of these epics, and probably the one that tries hardest to get into the minds of its subjects. Told in the voice of a convicted Italian cocaine smuggler, the book is structured as five cautionary “lessons.” The smuggler imparts many practical tips for the would-be narcotrafficker (mask your shipments with coffee or mustard—dogs will sniff right past ketchup), but is strongest when giving a glimpse of the life of those living a few steps ahead of the law and the competition, and of the death of those to whom the competition and the law have caught up.

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