Thursday, December 1, 2011

With Liberty and Justice for Some

Glenn Greenwald. With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2011.

Reviewed by T. Hatch’s blogger extraordinaire Glenn Greenwald tells the story of how we as a country have allowed a culture of elite immunity to flourish.  With Liberty and Justice for Some, he makes a rather old-fashioned argument. American political liberty rests on the assumption that the law reigns supreme. And, if the fundamental requirement of the rule of law is equality then the last forty years of American political history has made a mockery of this idea. The promise of America’s founding has been forsaken by the emergence of a two-tiered justice system.

Greenwald pinpoints the descent into the corrupt culture of elite immunity beginning with Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. It was the Nixon pardon which became the template for justifying elite immunity. President Ford, who if you believe Seymour Hersh (and Greenwald does), was selected as Agnew’s replacement because of his willingness to protect Nixon.  It was Ford who made the impassioned plea of empathy for Nixon i.e. because he had been through so much already and because the country needed to “look forward.”  In essence this call for empathy was a disguised appeal for aristocratic privilege that was granted and used as a perniciously burgeoning precedent.

The shenanigans associated with Nixon era criminality were followed closely by successively more brazen acts.  The law-breaking that went along with the Iran-Contra scandal (its subsequent cover-up and pardons) followed by the refusal of the Clinton administration to do anything about it gave way to a crescendo of felonies and war crimes committed by members of the Bush #43 administration.

In addition to crimes disguised as policy decisions receiving immunity, membership privileges were extended to the “corporate partners” as well.  The political criminals of George W. Bush’s administration merely had to utter the word “terrorism” and the Democratic Congress swiftly and obediently complied in allowing immunity to be extended to telecom corporations which had violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) with uninhibited impunity. The telecom immunity battle was the point at which politicians and corporations perfected immunizing private sector elites.  

In keeping with tradition and violating the law himself to do so, President Obama overlooked the crimes of the Bush administration because he had “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” (p. 54) One need not wonder what would happen to a defendant in criminal court (naturally not from the political or corporate elite) who tells the presiding judge that while dozens of people saw him shoot another down in cold blood he is “looking forward” now.  The defendant would almost certainly be joining the 1% of the adult population in the United States that are currently in jail or prison.

Then there was the late financial criminality of Wall Street run amok.  Unlike the Savings and Loan debacle of the late 1980s which resulted in the Federal government bailing out the cousin of the banking industry to the tune of $150 billion, the 2008 meltdown which occasioned a bailout at least seventy times larger, no one has been sent to jail or even charged with a crime. Greenwald quotes Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibi: “The only thing to remember is that all the ones who got us into this mess – Rubin, Summers, Goldman in general – are now being put in charge of the cleanup by a president who spent 18 months on the campaign trail pledging to end the influence of money in politics.” (p.117) Much like his former Senate colleague Charles Schumer of  New York  (a.k.a. “Senator Wall Street”) Obama was not about to turn the party over to “crazy, anti-business liberals.”

Whereas the Bush administration only threatened to prosecute whistle blowers the Obama administration, attempting to become the undisputed champion of elite immunity and privilege, has aggressively carried out these threats.  The Obama war on Wikileaks and PFC Bradley Manning is an illustration of this practice. “If you create a worldwide torture regime, illegally spy on Americans without warrants, abduct people with no legal authority, or invade and destroy another country based on false claims, then you are fully protected.  But if you expose any of these lawless actions by publishing the truth about what was done, then you are a criminal who deserves the harshest possible prosecution.” (p.262) 

Greenwald makes what can be construed as a basically conservative argument.  While he admits that there has never been anything like equality before the law (we achieved universal suffrage in this country about the same time we all bought color TV sets) he nevertheless decries the abandonment of the de jure ideal of the rule of law.  Greenwald does a solid job of recounting the “what” of history but he does not attempt to reckon with the “why” in this book. Sometimes art is short and life is long but the question of why is it that the American political class bothers less and less with a pretense of legality is of interest.

Doing my best to avoid a Marxist-smarty-pants-post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc conclusion is difficult. I think Slavoj Zizek’s contention that we are in a post-ideological epoch certainly has some validity.  Accordingly, it is not “hurray the beast ideology is at long last dead” as much as it is “we are so totally in control at this point that we don’t have to pay lip service to any nonsense about equality anymore.” A decadent political culture which allows a proud war criminal such as Dick Cheney to go on television, openly admit to his role in the crime of waterboarding while mocking the authorities who failed to lock him up, is evidence of a political system that not only tolerates but encourages open displays of obscene arrogance.

Soon to be available at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Check your library or local book store.

The book review heard David Harvey, professor of geography and anthropology at CUNY,  speak last night as part of the Penn Humanities Forum series of lectures. His lecture followed the same themes outlined by Hatch above, emphasizing the growing and solidifying disparity in wealth in this country and around the world. His most recent book is available at Penn Libraries. Harvey, David. The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism. Oxford [England: Oxford University Press, 2010. HB95 .H37 2010

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1 comment:

Walt Giersbach said...

Ah, T. Hatch, now you have made me very upset again and wondering if I should catch a bus to join the nearest Occupy site in Philly or New York. Thanks for this excellent review.