Glenn Greenwald: The Dangers of “Tribal Loyalty”August 24, 2010
“It is very rare that I am able to look at an event of some kind — whether it’s the election or anything else — and ultimately see an analysis of that event that is not only telling as to the real driving forces in what makes that event happen, but is insightful to those forces such that the next place to look becomes more apparent,” says Dylan about Salon.com writer Glenn Greenwald.
Glenn writes at Salon.com. You can follow Glenn on Twitter @GGreenwald. Glenn was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of two New York Times Bestselling books: “How Would a Patriot Act?” and “A Tragic Legacy.” His most recent book, “Great American Hypocrites,” was released in April, 2008.
DYLAN: Welcome once again to Radio Free Dylan. Today, a conversation with a man who has made it his business to fight what I would argue is one of the most effective truth to power information wars out there. Someone who is the definition of no sacred cows, the definition of a man who has not only the ability -- the intellectual ability -- and not only the courage in the way that he engages in the subjects that he's willing to engage, but has the capacity to integrate his skillet as a journalist, his powers intellectually and otherwise, and his courage to engage in a way that is almost never seen in the public sphere of information.
I know that is high praise, but I will tell your as somebody who, for a living, is forced and chooses to consume a lot of information, it is very rare that I am able to look at an event of some kind -- whether it's the election or anything else -- and ultimately see an analysis of that event that is not only telling as to the real driving forces in what makes that event happen, but is insightful to those forces such that the next place to look becomes more apparent.
In a world that is laden with pundits and politicians, and people who effectively go on into the public theatre in one way the other, in order to advocate a particular ideological worldview -- almost like a religious preacher -- there are too few analysts. People who are not wedded to a particular faith or set of ideals, but are informed on the way the system is making it's decisions. The apparent, and frequently too easily knowable, quite honestly, hypocrisy of the way that system functions. And then driving, driving, driving to those hypocrisy chasms if you will, in what is said and done inside of the political and other structures in this country, through analysis not punditry. I present to you a man who I believe is one of the great analysts of our time when it comes to the political functionality in this country.
Glenn Greenwald is most accessible to most in this world in many places, but Salon.com is a proud publisher to Mr. Greenwald's writings. He's of course on Twitter, and a variety of publications, he'll tell us his favorites when we ask him. And with no further adieu, I give you Glenn Greenwald.
The one thing I did leave out -- I didn't get into his legal background and the rest of it. He's also a man who, well, works from Rio id Janiero.
GLENN: That's the most important part.
DYLAN: It makes me very angry and very happy all at the same time. Hypocrisy watch. The gap between that which is said and that which is done, that which is promised and that which is delivered. Why are there so few of you?
GLENN: Well, I think hypocrisy has enabled -- let's look at it on a couple levels. First is just the domestic political level, where democrats criticize republicans for doing certain things when they're in power, then end up when they're in power doing exactly the same things that they criticized the republicans for, and vice versa.
I think one of the reasons why that that's so permitted is because this loyalty that people have to their tribe means that they object only when certain things are done by the other side, and not by their own side. They're not applying consistent principles. What they're doing instead is supporting anything their side does, and opposing what the other side does. Just sort of a blind, partisan tribe loyalty.
DYLAN: Sort of like a religion.
GLENN: Yeah. It's religion, it's sort of a sports team mentality as well, which is a more benign version of it. But, in politics when it comes to political leaders and what people in political power are doing -- they should never get free passes like that. There should be no concept of loyalty trumping people's principle. But I think there's a broader aspect of hypocrisy, which is one of the things that we do in the world is that we constantly propound all sorts of principles, and criticize other countries for doing all sorts of things that we ourselves do. And I think there's a lot of partisan loyalty along those lines, along a nationalistic level, that when we do those things it's inherently justified, and when someone else does exactly the same thing, and it's unjustified. but a big part of it is that the media and the government do a very good job at concealing the fact that the things we criticize other nations for doing -- tyrannical things, inhumane things, are things that we do just as much and often more.
DYLAN: If you were to look at the core aspect of that -- so you talk about the political manifestation of that behavior, "do as I say, not as I do," how much do you think the face that that exists in this country is a reflection of the fact that it is very much a reflection of the American people. On an individual level. That there's this preference to be able to point "well, it's the democrats fault. It's the republicans fault, it's the rich people's fault, it's the muslims fault, it's the Chinese fault." Or, Barack Obama will save me. George Bush will save me. Basically outsourcing your responsibility to have to deal -- either to a political philosophy or to a leader of some kind -- that it actually starts with the individual being less hypocritical themselves --
DYLAN: Because I'm more willing to accept the hypocrisy of my leaders, because if I'm too critical of their hypocrisy, well then it starts to hit closer and closer to home to my own personal hypocrisy.
GLENN: Well yeah, I think that the temptation to look at the external world generally from our own self-interested perspective is a very human, universal temptation. It's just part of how we view the world. But a healthy individual is able to transcend that, is able to resist that by applying principles as equally as you can. You don't want to look at the world through your own self-interested perspective. You want -- to the extent that you can -- see it objectively, so that you're not deceived. That's what a psychologically healthy person would do.
A psychologically healthy nation, or citizenry, will essentially do the same thing. So, we like to think of ourselves -- and in the ethos of American history, the American people think of themselves as being the strong, rugged individualistic types who take responsibility for their own actions.
DYLAN: That's what the Sarah Palin commercial said.
GLENN: It does. And that's what the republican ethos has been for so long, and still is. And if you look at our political discourse, it's nothing but searching out scapegoats for people's failures. Never taking responsibility. Always claiming that everyone believes that they are persecuted uniquely, that they are treated unfairly. It's always someone else's fault. And so being able to be a part of this movement that gives them grievances, and says that you are being treated unfairly, that your failures in life are not your own doing, but the doing of these other people, sort of feeds into that. And it's the antithesis of personal responsibility. It feeds into all the worst attributes. Just like an individual who succumbs to that becomes weak and unhealthy, so too does the nation.
DYLAN: What do you see as the core values of a reform movement to address that?
GLENN: I think one of the principle problems that we have in this country is that there is a very narrow ruling elite that essentially benefits no matter what the outcome of elections are. Republicans, democrats, people vote liberals, conservatives, and they end up having their agenda served. And the way in which they accomplish that is by ensuring that the citizenry, whom they're oppressing, and from whom they're stealing in essence, remains divided. Because when people are fractured, they become weaker and unable to fight. They're fighting one another instead. So, until we transcend those divisions, those distractions -- where people who have extremely common interests, namely they're being assaulted by a sliver of elites who own and control the government, until they stop being so divided and end up unifying in this fight against the people who are oppressing them, that I think is the best way to ensure the status quo .
DYLAN: And if you're to look at the channels to do that -- because obviously Barack Obama was viewed as a leader who was brought into office to achieve that objective -- if you were to look at the resources available, particularly in the -- because listen, let's be honest with each other. The problem of ruling elite controlling the government and fucking over the people is as old as the Egyptians and the pharaohs. This is not a new phenomenon that you have wealthy interests in partnership that's harvesting wealth from the populace for the benefit of the financial community and the government community. Our problems are not new. However, the technology that exists right now because of the information load that the meta-universe has delivered to all of us, and the communication and weak-tie networks that are now plausible that didn't exists when the Egyptians were with the pharaohs -- or for that matter, when Bill Clinton was president -- are very new tools. It strikes me that those tools could be incredibly powerful at addressing an age old problem, which is the rich people and the government getting together to screw over the people.
GLENN: Right. Well, I think if you look at American history, of course -- and from the founders on -- despite their political egalitarianism they believed that there was this superior elite who had a right to own huge amounts of property. And through their magnanimity and superior skills, ought to rule. I mean, that was essentially their vision.
But at the same time, what the wealthy class of America always understood was that they needed a relatively fair distribution of resources. Not because they were magnanimous, but because having a healthy middle class, having people in poverty believe and know accurately that they can move out of poverty is good for the social order.
It keeps a nation cohesive. It means that there's a peace -- there's not a lot of resentment towards the wealthy. And yet, that's the value that you see being abandoned. So you're right. There's always the case that the people who are wealthy use that wealth to translate it into greater political power. But the extent of the inequality, and the way in which the income is being consolidated in a tiny sliver is quite new. The level of inequality in this country -- and at the same time, what you have is a disintegrating country, an imperial collapse, essentially, where you're starting to see greater and greater levels of social disorder.
And that's when it becomes very dangerous. When the wealthy elite, and everybody else then starts thinking to themselves, "there's nothing really worth preserving anymore. I want to get as much as I possibly can for myself and protect what I have."
DYLAN: And if you were to look at how they're doing that -- the ability to take more out than has ever been taken out before -- much the same as the weapon to fight it -- is the technology. In other words, the credit default swap and the ability to effectively turn into money, to monetize all of the retirement funds, all of the buildings, all the insurance assets, basically all of the future capital and resources of this country. I can only harvest and I can only accumulate power and wealth on a level today that was never before achievable -- just like the Deepwater Horizon could drill deeper than anyone could before, because of technology. So it's almost as if the perils to us because of this are greater than they have ever been.
But isn't the counter to that our capacity to transfer information, develop a weak-tie network, and reform the process is equally formidable if only it were to be organized in some fashion?
GLENN: Well, right. I mean, that is true in theory. ironically, the idea for example of the internet was that everything would become democratized, and there would be greater egalitarianism because it would allow people who didn't previously have access to platforms to attain them. You wouldn't need to attach yourself to large corporations in order to find audiences and to be heard, and to coordinate, and petition, and assemble with other people. And there is a lot of that.
At the same time, the technology is being used in a much more significant way to concretize inequality, rather than to democratize. And I think -- you know -- something ultimately gives in these situations all the time. Because you can only have the population endure suffering and financial anxiety and financial hardship so long before a crisis mentality emerges, where they are no longer willing to accept that. Where it makes sense for them to start rebelling against the prevailing social order.
And there I do think that things like the internet and technologies can become an extremely important galvanizing tool -- and you see this in other countries. I mean, the Iranian revolution that almost succeeded in unseating their government was aided dramatically by their ability to communicate. The Chinese are obsessed with preventing their citizens from coordinating with one another, from assembling, from organizing politically over the internet precisely because it does pose that kind of a threat.
And you see it for example with WikiLeaks -- which is an organization which really has put a lot of fear into the ruling class. O ne of the very few that has actually been able to frighten the Pentagon and the intelligence community, using nothing more than the simplest technologies. When Daniel Ellsberg got the Pentagon papers, he had to find a newspaper or a politician who would publish it. He almost didn't, and he convinced The New York Times at the last minute to do so. WikiLeaks doesn't need that anymore, they can just take it and throw it online, and it can bring all kinds of transparency. That is a way that technology can undermine these interests, and the challenge is to figure out how.
DYLAN: For me, it strikes me as organizational. The assets are all in place -- it's the organization and collaboration of many mutually aligned individuals and institutions in a way around us -- a set of core values. Something's gotta give. So let's look historically at power transfer and things that can give. Obviously, the worst case scenario and the one that is to be avoided above all else is any sort of violent conflict, especially scaled violent conflict of any kind. Although, situations like the one that we are in, at greater stages of deterioration, money printing, incredibly unjust allocation of resources, racial resentment, religious aspects all come into play. And you can end up in the wost place that human beings end up in. At the same time, there are also power transfer aspects that happen in other ways. Through passive resistance, or through organized political campaigns. Or, and I'll add this third one in, the financial markets. It is possible for a country's currency to break, forcing a crisis and a full renovation, which is a clear risk for this country.
It is possible for the borrowing costs of a country, which is dependent on credit, to suddenly change in such a dramatic fashion that forces the debt restructuring that I would argue is clearly needed in order to clean this thing up.
When you look at the risk of what could give, or the probability of what could give, do you think that we the American people, that we the American media, have any real impact on which way the bow breaks, if you will?
GLENN: Yeah, I think one of the reasons why you're seeing such immense, drastic swings in political allegiance -- I mean, we had a "wave election," so called, only four years ago, where Republicans were swept out of office in extraordinary numbers in both houses of Congress, and of course that continued in 2008. And now, a mere 20 months later, you have a Republican party that looked to be in complete shambles doing the same thing in an even greater extent.
It's not because the citizenry is shifting back and forth from conservatism to liberalism, it's because there really is this perception that for the first time in any of our lifetimes, that we can imagine the United States not just declining, but actually disintegrating.
DYLAN: At risk.
GLENN: Right, at risk for a serious social disorder. And that creates an enormous amount of anxiety. People are desperately searching for answers. It's not just a theoretical risk -- people are perceiving this in their own lives. The kinds of hardship they have, the belief that their children won't be better off than they are, genuine fear about what kind of suffering they're going to have to endure. And I think there's this acute awareness that things are extraordinarily wrong. People may not be able to put their finger on what the cause is -- the debt restructuring needs or anything else. But people know -- I think there's a general sense in the population across the spectrum.
I actually had this interesting conversation with -- I know a couple hedge fund managers who are readers of my blog and have been for a long time, and I've tried to get to know them a little bit. One of the things I always try and understand from them, because their cohorts are people who are making $150 million a year, is why isn't there a greater fear within this class of what the consequences are of what they're doing.
DYLAN: Of their extraction.
GLENN: Right. Don't they fear that the system that makes them so wealthy and is the source of their power is going to collapse from it's own weight as a result of their greed? And don't they fear that the kinds of suffering that they are causing among 99.9 percent of 300 million people is going to create a very frightening backlash that can threaten their interest? Are they just so short-sighted and greedy that they don't think about those kind of things? Do they believe that the American people are too apathetic and sort of fat and complacent to really backlash in any way? What is the cause for this sort of amazing indifference? Not to the interest of everybody else, because they're selfish people, you don't expect them to have that. But to their own interests.
And one of the things I think you saw with the Tea Party movement -- and this is sort of interesting to describe it as neutrally as possible -- is one of the reasons why it succeeded in being heard so loudly and being taken so seriously as a real political force. Lots of reasons, they were funded by corporate interests who were exploiting them and all that. But one of the real things it did was it actually scared people in Washington. And it was designed to do that. In August of last year when members of Congress went back to their districts and they were confronted by very boisterous, rambunctious, physically intimidating behavior --
GLENN: And they were showing up at town hall meetings with guns, and having political marches with sub-machine guns strapped on to their shoulder, this was an actual physical threat to people in the ruling class, and we don't really see that very often in the United States. We saw it in the 1960's to some extent, where there was real social disorder that was scary and threatening. But it's almost as though -- and you said, and I agree, that you don't want to advocate violence. It's never a good thing, and it never leads to anything good. But what seems to be true is the members of our ruling class don't listen, don't take things seriously, unless they're directly threatened. Unless they're intimidated and scared that their own power base is going to be subverted.
DYLAN: However, I suspect that borrowing rates for U.S. Treasuries something north of 10% would be rather terrifying as well.
GLENN: It should be! But it seems as though the people who ought to be much smarter about their own interests are interested in only one thing, and that's the stock market and their personal wealth. And they don't seem to be particularly concerned about the structural threats that their reckless economic behavior is causing.
DYLAN: No, they definitely are not. It's an interesting dynamic in watching the financial community collectively buy into the redo that was created by George Bush. In other words, when the financial system evidenced itself for what it was, which was a giant gambling parlor with future capital where the failure to calculate correctly -- and the gap and the failure if you will -- was to be funded by the taxpayer so the gamblers could continue to play.
DYLAN: If there was ever a time that was evidence for a major restructuring systematically, it was obviously at that point in time.
GLENN: But what happened? They went back exactly to what they were doing.
DYLAN: And this is why I think that happened. The belief when they started this system in the late 90's -- 98, 99, president's working group of financial markets, Glass-Steagall, Gramm Leach Bliley, Commodities Future Modernization. The beginning of sort of the ability to capture forward capital, pension money, insurance money, real estate money, and then bring it back into the future, and create a gambling parlor with it, was a thesis that argued that this was and is -- and they still believe that it is -- and I know that they believe it still is -- the most efficient use of capital in the history of the world.
There is no longer dormant capital. All that forward retirement capital, forward housing price appreciation, forward insurance capital, will now be present capital. I don't necessarily agree with that.
GLENN: In theory, that makes sense.
DYLAN: They created an exquisitely efficient system. However, when you're designing a system and you're only measuring for a single variable, in this case efficiency, output, but fail to consider for other characteristics, like rigidity, adaptability, ability to absorb shocks to the system. They built a system that is the most efficient, most rigid system in the history of the world. I think of it like a sports car or a race car made of carbon fiber, that is capable of going laps at a million, jillion miles an hour. But if it hits the wall or touches a single pebble it shatters like a piece of glass. And the belief in the financial community is that the value of this efficient system is worth the occasional risk of shattering the car.
GLENN: Because the risk is not really born by them.
GLENN: What is really remarkable about it is they convinced political leaders -- and they probably believed it themselves -- that we were days away from a worldwide financial meltdown. And although they ended up being saved, they did see things that had to have been pretty traumatic, like Lehman Brothers disappearing.
DYLAN: More than that! Every pension fund, every teacher, every cop, every judge, every firefighter, every civil servant. Every pension payment in this country. Every insurance payment in this country. Lights out! And the leverage that the special interests have been able to accumulate -- when I walk into the room, and say "you can either do whatever I tell you, or the list of people I just mentioned will no longer be receiving checks. What's your preference?" That's a terrible place to be.
And so I think what we really have -- for me -- it is a function of finding the leverage. And I think we're having that same conversation. So we can get into the money or any of the health care thing -- we could go down any of these rabbit holes. But the thing that is lacking for somebody like myself or somebody like yourself or anybody that looks at this is not righteousness or analysis. Is not truth -- listen, I've seen your links, it's all true.
GLENN: It's vehicle to convert it into something that has an impact.
DYLAN: It's leverage.
DYLAN: We're in a situation -- we, being the American people -- that was opposite of those bankers. Those bankers walked in and had all the leverage. Because they had all the payments for all the American's future in their hand. So, we have to figure out -- meaning not you and I, Glenn Greenwald and Dylan Ratigan -- we have to figure out, the American people who are vested in celebrating the possible adaptation and enhancements that are possible to this North American continent that is populated with lots of people who are more or less as decent as any other person on this earth, under the right circumstances, meaning if we're rewarding altruism as opposed to exploitation. You reward exploitation you're going to get exploitation. You reward altruism, you're going to get altruism. And we're at a moment now where the only thing missing is that leverage. And the question is, will it come from meaningful social disruption, which is what you're talking about -- that's leverage, right?
DYLAN: That's what the Tea Party did.
DYLAN: Or, other vehicles. I look to the currency market and the bond markets and the bond market -- for me, the ideal leverage to force this to be dealt with would be a 50% drop in the dollar, a 20% spike in interest rates, that would then force acknowledgement of the fact that the entire --
GLENN: That the entire apparatus is corrupted at its root and needs to be basically uprooted and overhauled.
DYLAN: That's it.
GLENN: But what's remarkable about that -- and it really is remarkable -- that if that 2008 financial crisis did not accomplish that, it's hard to imagine a level of disruption that would be sufficient to cause that to happen while not engulfing everything in it's wake. I mean, you almost get convinced that the only way they're going to acknowledge that something needs to be fundamentally changed is by the time it's far too late. When the destruction is so widespread that it's irreversible. And that would be on some levels sweet justice for the people who are responsible. But the problem is it would potentially suck up everyone else in it's wake. So, what you want to do is find a vehicle, a method for changing it short of waiting for that to happen. Because it does seem like that's inevitable, absent some change and intervening cause.
DYLAN: Well, we've got our work cut out for us!
GLENN: It's true -- it's a big homework assignment we've given ourselves!
DYLAN: Exactly! We will leave it there. Glenn Greenwald, again, not only somebody who is a hell of a truth teller, and a hell of an analyst -- a systems analyst if you will for the way we collect our money, spend our money and set our policy, but a good guy. Glenn Greenwald out of Salon.com. That will do it for what is now episode 7 of Radio Free Dylan. We thank Mr. Greenwald for joining us, and we thank you for taking some time to listen to us.