Foreign Policy, recent, Regressive Left, World Affairs

The Apologist’s Apologist—A Reply to Robert Wright

In his most recent Nonzero Newsletter, Bloggingheads co-founder Robert Wright celebrates the “death” of the Intellectual Dark Web. Observing with some satisfaction that Google searches for “Intellectual Dark Web” have declined over the past couple of years, he points to what he describes as the IDW’s main “public relations problem”—its members aren’t as committed to the “vigorous and open exchange of ideas” as they insist. To substantiate this charge, Wright complains that a Twitter search returns no IDW objections to Trump’s recent executive order targeting antisemitism on U.S. college campuses. This alleged “inconsistency in the attitude of some in the IDW toward thought policing,” Wright says, was on his mind following publication of an article I wrote about Max Blumenthal for Quillette in October entitled “Tyranny’s Mouthpiece.”

Blumenthal had just appeared on Wright’s Bloggingheads show, which he spent doing what he always does—blaming the United States for as much chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East as possible. Blumenthal was fresh off a trip to Damascus, where he had attended a regime-sponsored “international trade union forum,” so he was eager to discuss the evils of U.S. sanctions, the crimes of U.S.-backed rebels, and Bashar al-Assad’s defiance of the “rabid regime change hyenas” in Washington.

According to Wright, vociferous critics of U.S. foreign policy in Syria “encounter a particular form of thought policing: attempts to stigmatize them by calling them ‘Assad sympathizers’ or ‘Assad apologists.’” He then turns to my Quillette article, about which he has this to say:

A sample sentence: “Blumenthal constantly emphasizes the atrocities of jihadist groups like Jaish al-Islam and al-Nusra because they give him moral and political cover for defending Assad, who has committed atrocities on a far greater scale.” I’ve added those italics to highlight the part of the sentence that is sheer speculation about Blumenthal’s motives—comparable to social justice warriors trying to silence, say, critics of affirmative action by calling them racist. In both cases, alternative motives are of course possible. But in Blumenthal’s case the unofficial magazine of the IDW seems oblivious to this fact.

Sure, alternative motives are possible. But just as some opponents of Affirmative Action are racist, some critics of American foreign policy are, in fact, habitual apologists for dictators—a determination that requires an assessment of what they’ve actually written and said. Instead of defending Blumenthal’s views on Syria, Wright plucks a sentence out of my article but doesn’t engage with a single argument I made in support of it.

It’s no surprise that Blumenthal was made welcome in Damascus—his commentary on the Syrian Civil War is largely indistinguishable from the Assad regime’s propaganda. Just watch his reports from Damascus and Bloudan:

His core message, which he restates over and over again, is that the regime is the victim in the civil war and not its most vicious perpetrator. Blumenthal claims that the United States is imposing sanctions on Syria because Assad’s forces recaptured territory from its proxies, but he doesn’t bother to mention another more plausible reason—that the regime is responsible for a vastly disproportionate share of deaths and casualties in the civil war, which began when regime forces opened fire on peaceful protesters across the country.

In his final report from Damascus, Blumenthal explains that the sanctions are in place for one simple reason: Assad’s forces “defeated a ruthless dirty war imposed on them by the West and their Gulf Israeli allies.” That’s it—not a word about human rights, the use of chemical weapons, or the joint Syrian/Russian airstrikes that have obliterated thousands of civilians. Blumenthal ignores the gravest crimes committed in Syria because they don’t fit his narrative—the country is under assault and Assad is its rightful ruler, regardless of how many people he kills. If that doesn’t make him an apologist for the Assad regime, what would?

Throughout the interview on Bloggingheads, Wright consistently fails to challenge even Blumenthal’s most brazen distortions. For example, at the 45-minute mark, Blumenthal says, “Russia is actually using diplomacy in the Middle East. The U.S. doesn’t use diplomacy, it uses military power.” Wright nods in agreement, despite the fact that Russian bombs continue to pulverize hospitals, schools, and entire city blocks while the U.S. has a comparatively limited military presence. Blumenthal then observes that Russia is “not really choosing sides the way the U.S. does”—another flabbergasting claim that Wright doesn’t bother to contest.

Blumenthal argues that Russian and Syrian forces have “liberated”—a word he always uses to describe territory recaptured by a dictator whose family has ruled Syria for half a century —cities like Palmyra to save civilians and defeat terrorists, and that the “only reason U.S. troops were there … was to perpetuate the fragmentation of Syria and the economic war. It had very little to do with anti-ISIS operations.” In Blumenthal’s world, the United States is always the first, second, and last threat, even when other countries are committing far more egregious crimes and causing far more bloodshed.

Wright shares Blumenthal’s habit of inflating the United States’ role in disasters like the Syrian Civil War, as well as its culpability for every peripheral effect. For example, in his newsletter he says the decision to arm and equip Syrian rebels “led to … a long civil war that brought hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees, with uncounted atrocities committed by the Assad regime and also by some of the rebels we backed” [italics added]. Say what you want about the arm-and-equip program, but it’s hardly the determinative factor in the civil war. Had the United States just stayed out of Syria, Blumenthal contends, “there wouldn’t have been a migration crisis. I think the politics in the West would be completely different.” Wright responds: “Totally. Brexit probably wouldn’t have passed. Trump might not be president.” When you think the United States is the “most destabilizing force on the planet,” as Wright does, it must be difficult to imagine that the most destabilizing conflict on the planet is largely someone else’s fault.

Blumenthal adds that the United States is “the biggest dictator on the planet.” When he talks about the United States, he starts using words like “dictatorship” and “authoritarian” promiscuously: “It’s just so absurd for me to see this liberal imperialist freakout, from people like the appropriately-named Anne-Marie Slaughter, about the Syrian government controlling its own territory. That is a dictatorial and authoritarian mentality … it is very much like a global dictatorship.” Meanwhile, Blumenthal says, countries like Syria and China have been “demonized for geopolitical purposes,” while the “consent for those governments has to be erased in the mind of the American media consumer to justify our imperial policies, whether it’s the recolonization of Hong Kong, which is what our support for these violent protests is really about or the destruction of Syria.” Whenever there’s an uprising against an actual dictatorship, you can count on Blumenthal to support the dictator.

As Blumenthal traveled around Syria, his central message was always the same: despite the “war of terror waged on Syria,” Assad’s forces have liberated millions of Syrians and life is returning to normal—if only the United States’ “disgusting program” of “crushing sanctions” could be halted. He’s telling a story of resistance to American imperialism, which is why he shares inspiring details like this one with Wright: “The First Lady of Syria, Asma al-Assad, made a point of being treated for her breast cancer in Syria as a kind of a statement of resistance against sanctions. To say: ‘We can do this.’ And, you know, it really did resonate with a lot of Syrians who are facing this situation.” Of course, Blumenthal isn’t going to come right out and say “I support the Assad regime,” but he doesn’t need to.

According to Wright, “Blumenthal is a particularly tempting target” for the “thought police”: “In addition to being rhetorically provocative by nature, he recently went to Syria, reported that many Syrians prefer living under the Assad regime to living under the control of Western-backed jihadist rebels, and argued for ending economic sanctions on Syria. So the stage is set for anyone who wants to misleadingly accuse him of ‘defending Assad.’” But Blumenthal doesn’t deserve criticism because he’s “provocative” or because he wants the United States to lift its sanctions on Syria. He deserves criticism because his “reporting” on Syria has been an unbroken stream of disinformation and propaganda about how Bashar al-Assad is fighting to save his country—with a little “diplomatic” help from his Russian friends in the form of cluster bombs—from the evil United States, which wants to destroy Syria and plunder its resources.

Blumenthal’s politics are morally repellent and intellectually dishonest and should be exposed as such. Does this mean I want him to be silenced? Absolutely not, and Wright can’t point to a single line in my article or elsewhere that suggests otherwise. He uses the term “thought police” again and again, but never explains how an article that challenges Blumenthal (whose platform is much larger than mine, by the way) is an attempt to “police” what he’s saying.

At the end of his piece, Wright speculates about whether it’s possible to develop an “idealized version of the Intellectual Dark Web … a network of people who disagree intensely over the great issues of our day yet feel a deep mutual affinity out of a common commitment to free speech and intellectual fair play.” He continues: “Maybe the best we can do is try hard (harder than Quillette, I’d say) to avoid cheap attacks on people and to address their arguments on the merits.” Considering the fact that Wright’s entire piece is itself a cheap attack that didn’t address a single argument I made on the merits, he might take a moment to reflect on his own contribution to this project.


Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, the BulwarkEditor & PublisherAreo MagazineArc DigitalSplice TodayForbes, and the Kansas City Star. He was formerly the opinion page editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjj89


  1. Trump’s Executive Order broadens the federal government’s definition of anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israel. This was done in response to increasingly anti Semitic activities arising across college campuses. I’m not Jewish. I do not like anti Semitism. Overall I tend to think highly of Jews. Therefore the natural tendency for people like me is to applaud Trump’s Order as it sticks it the university liberal elites and Islamophile social justice warriors with whom I frequently disagree. This is where Freedom of Speech gets hard. As much as I may believe campus elites and islamophile social justice warriors deserve the consequences of the aforementioned Order and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, I can not support this Order. The Order has the effect of limiting and punishing speech. Would those against whom the Order is directed likewise run to my defense when my freedom of expression was suppressed? No but that’s no the point. In order to enjoy freedom of speech we must have fidelity to it. We can not allow freedom of speech for me but not for thee.

    However the fact that there may be a dearth of articles on this one particular topic is in no way an indication that the Intellectual Dark Web is in peril. The fact that the cheering or jeering may be muted when the defenders of free speech are required to partner with less savory targets is not indicative of hypocrisy but rather reality. One naturally cheers more vigorously for one’s own team. So I will defend the right of an adversary to speak but that doesn’t mean he is getting a big man hug too. In other words let the sum bitches speak.

  2. Just so. And let’s stop reading minds. We do not know if anyone is really an antisemite or whether their criticism of Israel is just that. The question should not even be asked, firstly because it is impossible to answer and secondly because it’s perfectly fine to hate Jews if you feel like hating them. Me, I hate the Hutus and you can guess why. Hate is a perfectly normal state of mind and it can be quite appropriate and even praiseworthy. I stumbled across something yesterday: ‘Drag Queen Story Time’ and not to go into the details but after a bit of reading I hated them.

  3. Some people are just oikiophobes and cannot perceive the world in any other way than the United States being the Evil Empire. The US in their imaginations has this magical power to control people’s actions and thus direct events all around the world. The concept that other people, particularly non-whites, have any semblance of agency is a totally foreign concept to them. The progressive obsession with racism is essentially projection meant to eclipse the reality that, for instance, they don’t think Arabs can muster any better leadership than a murderous dictatorship. Thus these dictators are legitimate leaders, and the victims of oppressive Western standards.

    On the broader point about the IDW, it doesn’t seem necessary or desirable for free thinkers to band together like some sort of exclusive club. The name is also kind of cringe, so I don’t blame anyone for not embracing it. Quillette does a good job sharing heterodox opinions, although generally from a centre-left position, and seems to be growing, so I’d say that the IDW is doing fine.

  4. Stephanie

    I would add get out of your comfort zone. I have friends who express both surprise and disgust at the idea I would bother to read “The Nation” or “The New Republic”. I believe this is how best for one to expand one’s horizons. It is also an excellent way to learn and be prepared for the latest counter arguments to come one’s way. The best way to lose a debate is to be unprepared. This is why I like and visit Quillette so frequently. I am treated to interesting insights and back and forth from you and so many others. How boring and stagnant this site would be if it were just one big echo chamber. Sometimes the fur may fly but at the end of the day we are free people sharing ideas. The U.S. moved from Obama to Trump. Neither man will tear down or irreparably harm this nation. Fear not the opposite opinion see it for the opportunity that it presents. I guess over eating at Christmas causes me to take to the soap box.

  5. Reading my mind is a waste of time as it is easily distracted by beautiful women and shiny objects.

  6. The readership is far more conservative than typical, but that’s because left-leaning people have been told that this centre-left magazine is far-right and thus must not only avoid it but have animosity towards it. As nice as it would be to have more diversity of opinion here, the people we are missing out on are the ones unable or unwilling to question received wisdom about the nature of this magazine, so are unlikely to contribute much beyond regurgitations of whatever CNN is talking about at the time. Pretty much all the articles are by lefties of the more free thinking variety, so we’ll have to settle for that for now.

  7. I’m sure that that’s the case for the lefties we’ve had, but since I started participating there’s only been a handful to begin with. Even if we ignored them entirely I think we’d still see a lopsided distribution.

    But in the spirit of the coming New Year, we could aim to retain the lefties Quillette manages to attract by limiting our reaction to them while they’re here. Let one or two people reply to them, and don’t turn it into a 300 comment reply thread. If you can’t make your point in a few comments, a dozen more aren’t going to help. It’s also respectful to other users not to let the comments section explode into an unreadable mess. No need to repeat points people have already made , either.

  8. I just heard a neat holiday joke:

    – What do you call Santa’s little helpers?
    – Subordinate clauses.

  9. we could aim to retain the lefties Quillette manages to attract by limiting our reaction to them

    Not sure I’m on board with this, if only because it smells a bit of words I’ve grown to loathe: diversity and inclusiveness, not to mention quotas. Any individual commenter is free to have their say, no? While pile ons can become tedious to wade through, it can be done – I do it. And while often I’m in agreement with many commenters, at times I’m not. But it doesn’t make me run for the hills. If anything I learn. more in such moments.

    My suspicion is that lefties don’t appreciate learning of this nature. Take the fact that many of us are uncomfortable with the campus antisemitism decree on the grounds of free speech, regardless of our views on Israel. I find many of today’s lefties incapable of such subtlety or self-doubt or perhaps they’re simply more tactical in their thinking and acting. Hence, classical libs have been shunted to the side. I think it’s these classical libs, more than righties, who have found a home here at Quillette. And how classically lib of us to want all sides to be heard, and worry about lopsided comment sections.

    Can you imagine this conversation taking place at the Washington Post? No way. How about the Atlantic? Maybe yes, and that’s probably why they eliminated their comments entirely.

  10. Pretty creepy they know stuff like that. I will confess to having gone to Federalist, but the commenters are fairly shallow and nasty (they get a balance of lefties and righties). And before National Rvw went subscription only comments, I was there a lot too, often arguing against the authors, especially the always irksome Kevin Williamson.

    What attracts me most to any site is an intelligent and uncensored comment section. That’s where I get a feel for what real people care about and worry about. Very few sites, left or right can boast that. Quillette can. So if it’s true that Q readers are right of center, and true that Q comments are typically well reasoned, then… either some fallacy is in play or smart logical people skew right.

  11. Banned without explanation huh? Here and in other posts, you delude yourself that you are merely “critical of Zionism” as you put it. What does Zionism mean? Zion is another name for Israel; Zionism is the movement that established and now is in favor of a state of Israel for the Jewish people. So when you say you are “critical of Zionism” as opposed to, say, “critical of x party or y leader,” you are being anti-semitic. You are saying that of all the peoples in the entire planet, only the Jews don’t deserve a homeland. Are you critical of literally any other state’s right to exist? “I am critical of the idea of a nation of Pakistan and its right to exist.” Would you say that? Why not? All other peoples can conquer and slaughter and in many cases subject others to major human right abuses that pale in comparison to Israel’s (not discounting any injustice it has committed as a state entity)–but for you only criticize Israel, or, as you put it, 'Zionism."

    What is your proposal? The majority of Jews in Israel are of Middle Eastern and African background, having largely been driven out of their Middle Eastern nations they lived in for literally centuries, sometimes millenia. Are you saying Israel should exist, just not for the Jews? Given that most Muslim-Arab-controlled nation don’t permit Jews to even set foot on their land, much less live there, on pain of death, and given the fact that many Muslim-controlled nations become “free” of other religions and peoples within a very short time (Hmm, I wonder how that happens/), what on earth do you think would happen to the Jews who lived in Israel once it was not Zionist? What would happen to the nation itself? And mostly–why do you care so much? What the hell do you have at stake here and what the hell do you know about the very complex history and culture of the region?

    Addressing your final point–I myself don’t agree with the concept of hate speech, but if college campuses are already protecting other classes, like Muslims, then why not Jews to and terrorist-driven rants against Israel and the Jews that are indistinguishable literally from white nationalist rants?

  12. I don’t regard the “Left” and the “Right” to have any meaning anymore. We need new words or else new definitions. For what it’s worth, for all of my life, I voted Dem. I changed only a few years ago, but once my eyes were opened, I could unsee what I saw. I am by nature and philosophy an individualist; a believer in meaning and purpose and the pursuit of truth, which is complex and difficult; a rationalist, and so on. Everything about the new Left I find both dangerous and idiotic. It’s a primitive cruel religion/cult without redemption and runs against nearly all the grace and wisdom of all the major religions, forgiveness, mercy, treating others as you want to be treated, and so on.

    So when media and people for that matter are labeled simplistically - this is a right leaning paper, this is a left leaning - I find the labels meaningless. The division to my mind should be individualist versus collectivist; free speech versus state-and-fear-controlled speech; rationalism versus emotionalism; humanist versus tribalist; pro West versus anti West. And so on. Any site that welcomes analysis and vigorous supported disagreement, that raises reason-driven points, and perhaps most importantly, is self-aware of its own role as opposed to believing itself to be literally “Dumbledore’s army” or holier-than-thou saints in a stupid cult, I will read. I don’t care about the labels. Honestly, the right wing crazies scare me less than the Left wing ones as the Left wing ones have control of the media, universities, Silicon Valley, and so on; but truth be told, I often find their hate filled language indistinguishable from each other.

  13. These charts and grafts are reminding me to send some support $$ to the Quillette people. As a Deplorable center right, blue collar guy I consider Quillette essential(ish) reading. Partly because I appreciate clever and thoughtful responses like yours, that offer a slightly different viewpoint that helps me expand my thoughts a bit. Rather than those sites who’s comment section quickly turns into a shouting match.

  14. This question - about the intensity of caring, of feeling - isn’t discussed often enough, I think.

    I am not directing this at the person you specifically replied to, but I think that this intensity of caring, manifested as anger and often disgust, cannot be explained by disapproval at having a portion of one’s taxes used to finance Israel’s security in the form of grants and loans.

    This intensity of personal feeling directed against Israel is greater by far than that directed against Saudi Arabia, even after the Khashoggi murder, or against Pakistan, both of which receive money in some way from the pockets of Western taxpayers and both of which are, at the governmental level, human rights offenders by Western liberal standards.

    There’s something else about Israel, something unique, which provokes all of this. It appears to have nothing to do with the money, since the West is showering money elsewhere in regions where people suffer. And it appears to have nothing to do with caring about human rights, since human rights elsewhere appear to hold little importance by comparison.

    Something else is at stake, then.

    (edited for clarity and mistake)

  15. I’ve mentioned this quote before but still can’t find the original author. But I think it was Orwell.
    “The real struggle is not between revolutionaries and conservatives, but between authoritarians and libertarians”

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