I do not know how brave I am. It’s hard to know until you’re tested. I’d like to think, as I’m sure most of us would, that when the fascists took over, I would be a courageous dissident. The evidence, on the other hand, suggests that most of us aren’t going to be courageous dissidents. We might be morally queasy on the inside, but we won’t actually speak up unless others are speaking up already. And we all know some people who, relatively benign as they may be now, we secretly suspect might “go Nazi” under the right circumstances. Thank God, then, for those rare few people who have defiant enough spirits that they would never shut up about injustice, no matter what happened to them. I don’t know where those people come from, but I’m glad they exist.
Some of my friends don’t care for Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald. And sometimes I see where they are coming from; he can be stubborn and irascible, undiplomatic and difficult to get along with. (To me, however, he has always been unfailingly kind and generous, and has repeatedly used his platform to promote our little left-wing magazine.) The same traits that can make someone a pain in the ass, though, can also make them a damned useful friend to have in the struggle. When the fascists come, you want people against them who will be stubborn and argumentative, and who will never, ever back down.
You may not have noticed the reporting coming out of the Brazilian Intercept recently, because the American press doesn’t give a shit about what happens in other countries, even giant ones whose political decisions affect the entire fate of the planet. But some truly extraordinary work is being done, with revelations that are roiling the entire Brazilian political system.
The potted version is this: “Operation Car Wash” was a giant anti-corruption prosecution that took down many Brazilian politicians, including popular former president Lula. The anti-corruption crusade made heroes out of the prosecutors and the judge, Sérgio Moro, who insisted that they were nonpartisan “good government” types lacking political motivation. Moro even made the TIME 100 in 2016, which noted that “Brazilians call him SuperMoro,” the man who would “change a culture of graft that has long hobbled his country’s progress.” While he might sometimes have little regard for due process, TIME said, many seem to feel “his sharp-elbowed tactics are worth the trade-off for a cleaner country.” The New York Times wrote a flattering profile. The Washington Post said that “If there was a unifying figure in Brazil these past five years, as the economy flailed, violent crime soared and polarization deepened, it was Sérgio Moro.”
The anti-corruption prosecutions affect the entire fate of the country. The left-leaning Lula, who would almost certainly have been returned to office, was barred from running and sent to prison. This made room for a despicable far-right bigot, Jair Bolsonaro, to sweep into office. I don’t use the phrase “despicable far right bigot” lightly. He has been called the “Trump of the Tropics,” but that’s far too cute and mild. Bolsonaro has been openly pro-torture, advocated returning to a military dictatorship, and told women that rape was too good for them. He is violently homophobic, encouraging people to whip their children if they turn out “a little gay,” saying he’d rather his own child die in an accident than be gay, and declaring that “If I see two men kissing in the street, I will beat them.” He has promised to allow the police to murder with impunity. And of course, he’s happily accelerating the wholesale destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
Bolsonaro was understandably pleased with the work that Sérgio Moro and Operation Car Wash did in eliminating his political competition, and upon taking office Bolsonaro quickly appointed Moro to be his top justice minister. Now, enter the Intercept, which published excerpts from leaked documents to show that Moro, as judge, had been collaborating with prosecutors and helping them craft their cases. Greenwald, along with the Intercept team (including journalists Victor Pougy, Andrew Fishman, Rafael Moro Martins, Leandro Demori, Alexandre de Santi, Amanda Audi) showed that the judge “offered strategic advice to prosecutors and passed on tips for new avenues of investigation.” The documents also show internal doubts among prosecutors about the strength of the evidence against Lula, and prosecutors fretting about the possibility of the Brazilian Worker’s Party returning to power (contrary to their outward claims of being politically neutral).
The Intercept’s reporting has colossally undermined the public reputation of a powerful and celebrated figure, and revealed corruption at the highest level of the government. When you remember that that government is run by a person who has threatened to exile or jail his enemies, and has fantasized about restoring a murderous military dictatorship, it’s obvious that this kind of reporting could create a dangerous backlash for the journalists involved.
And that’s exactly what has happened. The far right in Brazil has heaped menacing public abuse upon Glenn Greenwald, and recently Bolsonaro threatened him with jail and announced Greenwald was under investigation. (For what, God only knows. A government can always cook up something.) Asked what crimes Greenwald had committed, Bolsonaro’s spokesman said that the revelations “harm[ed] the government’s image,” which is undoubtedly true but which implies criticism should be criminalized. Rumors have been spread that Greenwald has committed various crimes and is an enemy of the state. He and his family can no longer appear in public without armed guards.
Greenwald’s husband, David Miranda, has also actively been resisting Bolsonaro’s administration. Miranda is the only openly gay congressman in the country. The last one was forced to flee the country after receiving credible death threats, causing Miranda to step into the post. Given the 2018 murder of human rights activist and Rio city councilwoman Marielle Franco, a friend of Greenwald and Miranda’s—a crime linked to the same homophobic far right now enraged at Greenwald and Miranda—the threats they face are serious. Nobody can begrudge Miranda’s predecessor in the post for choosing to get out while he could. (Ordinarily, Greenwald might hope for some extra protection as an American, but he happens to have pissed off the entire American political establishment through Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the national security state, and Donald Trump—of course—loves Bolsonaro.)
Journalists are supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Certainly, Greenwald, Miranda, and the Intercept’s team of young Brazilian journalists are afflicting the comfortable. (The Bolsonaro government is trying to paint Greenwald as solely responsible for the reporting, even though much of it was done in collaboration with major Brazilian publications, because it is trying to create a “foreign villain” figure.) This is what real journalism looks like, what real resistance looks like. It’s very easy for those of us who don’t face actual threats to “resist.” In a place where the far right can literally order the murder of your friends—who hold public office!—with impunity, the situation is different. Then it takes a hell of a lot of courage.
I have to say, I admire Glenn and David and Victor and the others so much right now. Glenn could have stuck to reporting on the United States, and declined to antagonize the Brazilian neofascists. He could have spent his time writing hot takes about the 2020 primary, instead of combing through thousands of internal Brazilian government documents in Portuguese. He has chosen to fight where he is. David could have declined to serve in public office, knowing the kind of hate that would come his way. He chose to stand proud, even though completely on his own in congress, a hero to LGBTQ people across the world. How many of us can be certain that we would do this ourselves? And yet how much does our freedom depend on there being people willing to do it?
I love that George Bernard Shaw quote about how progress depends on “the unreasonable man,” because reasonable people adapt themselves to the world while unreasonable people demand that the world adapt itself to them. Glenn Greenwald has always been an unreasonable man, in a way that exasperates some leftists. I’ve disagreed with him strongly before, and I’m sure there are legitimate criticisms that can be litigated on Twitter at a time when he isn’t being threatened daily by a murderous homophobic neofascist. But honestly, right now, God bless him for his unreasonableness. Without people like Greenwald and Miranda, there is no stopping the Bolsonaros of the world. With them, we just might stand a chance.
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.