Glenn Greenwald: Cultivating Hope While Perpetuating Unfairness Is CruelMay 23, 2011
Is it cruel for a leader to cultivate false hope from cynical voters, only to crush those hopes two years later? Is what we were promised in 2008 being delivered on in 2011? To dig in to that topic, we’re bringing one of our Radio Free Dylan favorites, Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com.
“The promise of his candidacy, the reason why young voters and new voters became so energized by his campaign, or the reason people became so “hopeful” to use his word — the central promise was that things would actually be different, the central promise of his candidacy was radical changing of these dynamics. And not only has the critique been that he’s failed to change it, that he hasn’t changed it quickly enough or fundamentally enough, it’s that he’s doing the opposite. He’s moving it in the other direction. He’s bolstering it and intensifying it and strengthening it, and I think that’s the real complaint,” says Glenn.
As we all remember, the promises of the Obama campaign were lofty. ”The real irony and the real tragedy of the Obama presidency is that there were so many speeches where he talked so insightfully about the cancer of cynicism that was infecting the body politic, that people really believed that there was no point in participating in politics, that the political system was stacked against them inherently, that politicians were intrinsically corrupt. And the promise of his campaign was to eliminate the cynicism and to restore in all kinds of factions of the citizenry who lost it. And by raising people’s hopes that greatly, only to then crush those hopes, that has done more to intensify cynicism than any other single event. It let people who had been jaded and cynical believe that they had finally found a reason to be hopeful. Then to dash those hopes, maybe of an entire generation to give into cynicism forever. I think you saw that in 2010, and you’re seeing it in his approval ratings now,” says Glenn.
Even more serious than that, says Glenn, is the president’s inaction towards prosecuting corruption in big business and government, and the protection of those who actually have committed crimes.
“He’s shielded the most powerful people from the most egregious crimes. He’s shielded the telecom industry when they broke the law by cooperating with George Bush’s illegal, warrantless eavesdropping program… He has ensured that virtually no Wall Street tycoons who caused the worst financial crisis that reverberated around the world — and still reverberates — has had any repercussions. Even when banks got caught stealing people’s homes, the Justice Department has stood idly by and done nothing about it, even though there’s clear criminality,” says Glenn.
Most concerning to Glenn is that when ‘Candidate Obama’ was running for president, he said that whistleblowers were patriotic and courageous and need to be encouraged. What he delivered, though, could not be further from that pledge.
“It has been clear for quite some time that he has been the single most aggressive president in persecuting whistleblowers; people who expose government wrongdoing even though it commits no harm to the country. So he’s enabling and bolstering the secrecy regime, while shielding the world’s most powerful factions from any form of accountability,” says Glenn.
“Administrations, presidents in particular, are very reluctant to investigate criminality on the part of other government officials, because that’s how they protect themselves. It’s part of a gentlemen’s agreement whereby presidents know they can break the law and not be investigated because no subsequent presidents will investigate them. So, those presidents can also act with impunity. So part of it is just self interest. If you’re an elite, and especially a political elite, you want this impunity for political elites to be sustained because that enables you to do what you want without ever having any accountability,” says Glenn.
“The nature of powerful factions is that they wield power. That’s what makes them powerful. And so, if you’re a politician, you don’t want the nation’s most powerful factions working against you and trying to sabotage your power and undermine your policies and work towards your defeat. You don’t want the permanent military industrial complex — as Dwight Eisenhower warned fifty years ago would be more powerful than any democratically elected official — working against you or trying to undermine or sabotage you. You want to accommodate them and keep them on your side. And “good” politicians instinctively accommodate rather than challenge power,” says Glenn.
READ MORE: Jane Mayer on Obama’s War on the Whistleblowers [SALON.COM]
One Year Ago: The Unmaking of Bradley Manning [THE NATION]
Glenn was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in NY. He is the author of of How Would a Patriot Act?, A Tragic Legacy, and most recent book, Great American Hypocrites, which “examines the manipulative electoral tactics used by the GOP and propagated by the establishment press.” You can follow him on Twitter @GGreenwald.
DYLAN: Welcome to episode 57 of Radio Free Dylan. Our guest, one of our favorites and one of the fans' favorites, Glenn Greenwald is, of course, a writer at Salon.com, previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York, author of a couple of bestselling books "How Would A Patriot Act?" and "A Tragic Legacy." His most recent book "Great American Hypocrites" and Glenn has been front and center in defending American Civil Liberties, American rights and specifically the importance and emphasizing the importance of actually having factual information in the public domain such that the nature of the dialogue in the debate is based in actual fact as opposed to a constant state of either misinformation, distortion, illusion, or outright lie.
The most recent piece of information that sort of makes people’s blood boil and understandably so mine for sure was the disclosure to through the Huffington Post reporting of an internal IG report that documented the fact that the government knows that the banks are screwing over the taxpayers and the government but that the government is not going to do anything about it. And now we know that the government knows that the banks know that the government knows that we’re all getting screwed. You get it?
Glenn is -- the president -- this President Barack Obama dealing with reforming the issues surrounding the predation of whistleblowers, the perpetuation of misinformation, the perpetuation of status quo oligopolies and monopolies. Is the President fighting on behalf of whistleblowers whether it’s with the banks or whether it’s obviously with issues surrounding with WikiLeaks?
GLENN: No, this is to me one of the most remarkable aspects of the Obama presidency thus far is when you know -- he didn’t have very many specific proposals or policies as part of his campaign. What he had instead were themes. One of the principal themes of that Washington needed to be changed fundamentally so that there is no longer what he called "Louis Libby justice" where the most powerful people who were able to get away with law-breaking and the law was only for ordinary Americans. And yet he’s done more to bolster Louis Libby justice than any president in history.
I mean he has shielded the most powerful people from the most egregious crimes. He shielded the telecom industry when they broke the law by cooperating with George Bush's illegal warrantless eavesdropping program. He voted to give them immunity. Before he was even in office reversed his pledge to investigate whether the Bush officials had committed crimes in the way they spied on Americans and tortured people and acted around the world to protect Bush officials from investigation and acted in our court system to prevent them from having to have judicial review.
He has ensured that virtually no Wall Street tycoons who caused the worst financial crisis that reverberated around the world and still reverberates has had any repercussions even when banks got caught stealing people’s homes, the Justice Department has stood in idly by and done nothing about it even though there’s clear criminality. Instead, the only criminality he’s interested in are people who blow the whistle on the most powerful people. So you have not only this obsession with prosecuting WikiLeaks for exposing a whole variety of acts of wrongdoing and basically torturing Bradley Manning by holding him in 10 months in solitary confinement for doing the same thing.
But you have a broader -- really a war on whistleblowing generally. I mean when "candidate Obama" was running for president he said the whistleblowers are patriotic and courageous and need to be encouraged and yet now as this new New Yorker called by Jane Mayer documents and has been clear for quite some time, he’s actually been the most single aggressive president in persecuting whistleblowers, people who expose government wrongdoing even though it commits no harm to the country. So he’s enabling and bolstering the secrecy regime while shielding the world’s most powerful factions from any form of accountability.
DYLAN: And do you think he’s doing that as a conscious act? I mean we’ll never obviously be able to answer this question. Do you explain this behavior through basically a culture of expedience and convenience on the president’s part? He doesn’t want to with deal with any of this nonsense. He needs to get re-elected. There's a big civil rights agenda around his presidency. We don’t want anything to tarnish it. Let’s just cover anything up that has to be covered up.
GLENN: Yeah. You know, I think suggestive motives are difficult to discern but there’s a few things that I think you can look to that provide some evidence. There’s was an article in the New York Times very early on in the Obama presidency, I think a couple weeks since the new administration that talked about how administrations, presidents in some particular, are very reluctant to investigate criminality on the part of other government officials because that’s how they protect themselves. It’s just seems the "gentleman’s agreement," the New York Times called it, whereby presidents know they can break the law and not be investigated because no subsequent presidents would investigate them so those presidents can also act with impunity. So part of it is just self-interest. If you’re an elite and especially politically a political elite, you want this impunity from political elites to be sustained because that enables you to do what you want without ever having any accountability.
The other aspect of it is -- more broadly if you look at financial elites and corporate elites the kind of Wall Street crimes that we’re talking about -- you know the nature of powerful factions is that they wield power. That’s what makes them powerful. And so if you’re a politician you don’t want the nation’s most powerful factions of working against you and trying to sabotage your power and undermine your policy to work towards your defeat. You don’t want the permanent military industrial complex which Dwight Eisenhower warned 50 years ago would be more powerful than any democratically elected official. You don’t want them working against you trying to undermine you or sabotage you. You want to accommodate them and keep them on your side. And good politicians instinctively accommodate rather than challenge power.
And so I think that the last thing Barack Obama wants to do being as accommodating as he is and as self-interested as he in his own well-being, in his own political frames is to antagonize these factions by holding them accountable. He’d rather protect them and shield them and look the other way and that’s how he keeps them on his side.
DYLAN: Which is a forgivable and understandable human frailty but for the fact that he is the president of the United States of America and more notably won his election as the President of the United States of America on the foundational rhetoric that he was not going to do precisely what you just described.
GLENN: Well, that’s really the issue is, you know, as you said, I mean the things that I’m describing, this elite impunity, the idea of there’s a two-tier justice system where people who are powerless are punished for insignificant offenses while people who are powerful get away with extreme law-breaking. This isn’t new. This is not new in our history. It’s not new in history in general.
DYLAN: With the pharaohs, with the samurai, or anybody else.
GLENN: What makes the Obama presidency so egregious is not just that they've done it even more so. I mean again, they’re not just protecting powerful people. They’re going after whistleblowers with a vengeance that, as Jane Mayer’s article suggested, not even Richard Nixon did with his fixation on government leaks. I mean Obama seems truly vindictive about punishing people who expose wrongdoing. So it’s not only that he’s protecting powerful factions. He’s actually more egregious than that. But even though he's protecting the powerful factions, you could say -- you can write it off as human nature -- you can say it’s the kind of thing that we typically expect from politicians but the promise of his candidacy -- the reason why some of the new voters and young voters became so energized by his campaign, the reason that people became so "hopeful" to use his word that things would actually be different is because that central promise of his candidacy was radical changing of these dynamics. And not only has he – the critique has not been he’s failed to change it, he hasn’t changed it quickly enough or fundamentally enough, instead he was doing the opposite. He was moving it in the other direction. He’s bolstering it and intensifying it and strengthening it and I think that’s the real complaint.
DYLAN: Do you feel that that is becoming better understood through the cognitive dissonance of both certain wings of the media that are view their economic fortune as favorably -- or as favorable as tied to Barack Obama, and for that matter voters who are suffering the cognitive dissonance of having believed all the lies of 2008 only to bear witness to the sort of thing you’re describing? Do you think people get what you’re saying?
GLENN: Well, I think there’s no question. I mean if you look at what happened in 2010, it’s really quite extraordinary that the Republican Party before the 2008 election was about as decimated and discredited as a political party has ever been in modern American history. I mean George Bush and the Cheney office was humiliating low approval ratings. The Republican Party in general was devastated. They got crushed in two consecutive national elections in 2006 and 2008. People were talking about permanent democratic majorities for a generation at least and yet literally two years later without the Republicans having to do much of anything they came back and destroyed the democrats in the last midterm election as badly as the beating that was administered to them in the two prior elections.
And the reason for that is very clear. I mean obviously the Republican Party was motivated by their somewhat ignoble animosity towards President Obama for rather ignoble reasons, but a big part of it was that the people who provided the energy to these democrats in the prior two elections were simply indifferent, apathetic to the outcome of that election because they became so disillusioned. And that is the real irony and the real tragedy the Obama presidency is, you know, there are so many speeches where he talks very insightfully about the cancer of cynicism that was infecting the body politic that people really believe that there was no one participating in politics that the political system was stacked against them.
Apparently, the politicians were intrinsically corrupt and the promise of his campaign was to eliminate that cynicism and to restore awe in all kinds of factions of cynicism that have lost it. And by raising people’s hopes that greatly only to then crush those hopes -- that has done more to intensify cynicism than other single event because it let people who have been jaded and cynical believe that they had finally found the reason to be hopeful and then to dash those hopes… It's caused a huge number of people, maybe an entire generation, to give into cynicism forever and I think you saw that in 2010 and you’re seeing it in his approval ratings now.
DYLAN: I was talking to somebody on the television show about this the other day. Is there a cruelty -- is it not cruel to walk into a room and encourage a group of people to feel hopeful, to feel that their chance is as good as anybody else’s chance on the one hand while simultaneously rigging economic variables and other variables to ensure the rigged game that will doom those very people that you are spouting your inspirational rhetoric to?
GLENN: Yeah. I think that’s an important point.
DYLAN: Isn’t that cruel?
GLENN: You know, I think when republicans are in office people have a good sense for what their values are, where their allegiances lie, which factions they’re there to serve. When democrats like Barack Obama get into office on these pledges that they’re going to do all sorts of things for these forgotten constituencies and then do exactly the opposite -- raise their hopes only to crush them, then I do actually think that there’s a cruelty to it as you suggest. There’s an even more devastating outcome because people barely know what’s hitting them because they put their faith in this very well-spoken politician who's very good at making crowds feel like he empathizes with them and it’s a form of deceit and trickery to then turn around and do the opposite.
The other aspect of it is that it takes republican policy namely "we’re going to serve the banks and the banking industry and corporations and be corporatist and serve the wealthiest sliver off the top percent." It takes what used to be a controversial right-wing dogma and outlook on the world and it converts it into by-products and consensus so that it makes both political parties the servants of these same corporate classes and these same financial and political elites. And really it subverts democracy. The same thing has happened in civil liberties where it used to be the republicans hated due process and wanted Guantanamo closed and hated the idea of looking at terrorism as a war and democrats railed against those things. Now, what President Barack Obama is doing them, he’s converted it into bipartisan consenses. That’s the policy of both parties so there’s no more debate about it. That’s what happens as well when both top political party serve the same constituencies. There’s no more choice between -- for people among the two parties.
DYLAN: And I guess the endgame for me as I share your analysis is I have to think and maybe this is just sort of a default optimism that is sort of there for the purposes of self-preservation but I have to think that with the level of dysfunction in both parties the two bad choices, everything you just described, and the concurrent existence of the level of connectivity and information and communication that does exist that I have to imagine that we’re getting closer to the emergence of some alternate mechanism that I would envision as issues based as opposed to political party based. That there are better ways to do energy or healthcare.
GLENN: One would like to think that that’s the case. There are a couple of problems with that, with believing that that's the case. One is that our political system just systemically is designed to really favor two parties and to prevent the emergence of alternatives. So you don’t really have all that much choice if you want to have a realistic impact on the next election --
DYLAN: What about an issues based -- what about an issues based coalition?
GLENN: -- other than identifying this all as being allied with one of the two political parties and then supporting those that party’s candidates. Just systemically the problem is that the only real alternative can come from, say, a billionaire who funds him or herself as a third party candidate the way Michael Bloomberg might have, the way Ross Perot did, but that has its own imperfections and so that’s one of the problems. The other problem with it is people and citizens have been so ingrained to identify tribalistically with one of the two parties. So it almost stops mattering what these parties do, whether they comport with their values, whether they subvert your values, that’s your tie, that’s your key and you’re going to stick with them as imperfect as they are.
Lots of people have been trained to think and the people who are the hardest core loyalists enforced that by basically making it that the worst heresy is to deviate from that. I mean if you ask a lot of democrats who their most hated enemy is it won’t be Newt Gingrich or Mitch McConnell or Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or whomever, it will be Ralph Nader because he was a heretic who deviated from that system. And I think culturally that's ingrained in the people the sense that they shouldn’t wander away from the two-party system from either -- and that’s a very strong cultural bias that needs to be overcome.
DYLAN: Yeah, you just wonder how much pain and suffering has to be administered before we get there. Again, I guess if I look for my silver lining it is that there are more people who see and know and understand what the corruption is in terms of both the influence of these certain industries, the game rigging in the markets, and the betrayal and the cruelty that the Obama presidency has come to represent as a result of its false promise. At the very least that more people understanding that I have to think has the potential to ultimately lead to something good after it leads to a lot of people yelling in the kitchen.
GLENN: Yeah. No, I look -- I mean I agree with you entirely. You know, I don’t think anybody would do what you or I do as a primary occupation which is getting up in the morning and talking passionately about politics and pointing out things that we see that we think are wrong that we think need to be fixed if we didn’t believe that something good could come of that. Nobody who is truly resigned to the inevitability of these things or the hopelessness of it would ever be able to bother. And so I think there are lots of signs of hope and typically what changes societies radically is dissatisfaction, and I’ve been saying a lot of it the past few months that the greatest anecdote to hopelessness should be what happened in the Middle East.
I mean if people over there with their degree of resource deprivation and deliberate lack of education and widespread poverty can challenge powerful factions that are that entrenched for decades and really bring earthquakes to their society, then we over here with our much greater opportunity and access to technology and resources and the like, certainly can do it and the more dissatisfaction bubbles over and you look at polls, that 70% to 80% of Americans think we're fundamentally on the wrong track. The level of dissatisfaction has been there for a while. It’s got worse over the past few years since the financial crisis. That’s just looking for a vessel, for an avenue, for a mechanism to express itself and once it finds it then I think you know that kind of change will happen, and the point is to get people to see the justification so that there's [indiscernible] to act as much as possible.
DYLAN: Yeah. Listen I agree with that and I’m going to leave it on that note, Glenn. It’s always a pleasure. Your podcasts as I think you know are among the single most popular thing that we ever put up over here and it is a pleasure to have the opportunity not only to chat with you but it’s fun to watch how incredibly responsive the audience is to the things that you have to say and to the nature of these conversations. It’s a tremendous compliment and validation I think to the intense investment that you’ve made over the past decade in cultivating your voice as a credible arithmetic and fact-===based analyst on the obvious and expanding dysfunction in this country and really in the world. And so I’m excited to publish this most recent addition.
GLENN: Dylan, it’s always great to be with you and I feel about the same way about the work we’re doing and I’m happy to be here.
DYLAN: All right. Cool. Listen to Glenn Greenwald. Check him out on Salon and you can check him out right now. Send this podcast to a friend. This is a good one. Let’s be honest with each other. That was a good conversation.