From the Vault: Glenn Greenwald: With Liberty and Justice for SomeOctober 27, 2011
This podcast was recorded in October 2011.
How did America come to accept having two classes of citizens, living under two sets of rules? Have Americans give up on the dream of fairness for all, or are we ready to restore some sort of equilibrium to our systems of finance, justice, and most importantly, our economy?
We got the chance to sit down with Salon’s Glenn Greenwald to discuss his book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. Glenn believes that unfairness in America is nothing new — in fact, he says, it is perfectly acceptable in this culture for us to admire those who we see as becoming successful and powerful by creating value.
At the same time, Americans accept unfairness with one explicit caveat: that each of us has the chance to be one of those people — that each of us has the opportunity to become successful. What Americans are rejecting now is not wealth disparity, but the corrupt and unethical way so much of the money in this country is now being made, with our government, more often than not, simply looking the other way.
Many Americans are saying “no more” to our government explicitly agreeing to legalize and codify that destructive behavior, protecting powerful political and financial elites while prosecuting ordinary Americans over trivial offenses. We are beginning to see a rejection of this unfairness via social movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party other national reform-based movements. As Glenn puts it:
“What has changed is not suddenly that people are angry about income inequality and wealth inequality and believe it’s illegitimate. What has changed is the perception that the people who have everything that they have, the top 1%, or I think more accurately 0.1%, have obtained that not fairly or legitimately or through meritocracy, but those are ill-gotten gains, that they are illegitimate, that the entire system has become illegitimate.”
Many feel like our government now has no problem with saying there are two kinds of people. This country used to be freedom and justice for all, with the aspiration that we all have a chance to make it — now it’s freedom and justice for some. In the past, there was a resistance to these policies, either by the President, the Congress or the people. We saw this with the ending of slavery, with women’s suffrage, to the civil rights movement. That seems to have ended. As Glenn explains:
“Even though we were obviously having all kinds of inequality, plagued by inequality throughout our first two centuries, the fact that we continue to affirm this principle and then eventually wrote it into the 14th Amendment, equality under the law, equal protection under the law, meant that we continue to move in that direction, and that is the history of the United States—disenfranchisement of women became the right of women to vote, slavery of African-Americans became emancipation and the elimination of Jim Crow, constantly moving in the direction of equality under the law. And what has really happened over the past four decades is not just that we violated the principle, because that’s been going on forever, it’s that we’ve stopped even affirming it, so you see explicit arguments all the time from the most important opinion-making elites in the society about why elites and people in power and people who are financially most powerful need not and should not be held accountable under the rule of law. Criminal processes, indictments, prosecutions, imprisonment, those are for the people who are selling drugs on the corner that you see as you drive by outside your window. They’re not for the Secretary of Defense. They’re not for high political officials. They’re not for heads of Wall Street firms. And this is an express repudiation of equality under the law that really is what makes things so different now.”
RADIO FREE DYLAN – EPISODE 75
INTERVIEW WITH GLENN GREENWALD
DYLAN: Welcome to Episode 75 of Radio Free Dylan. And someone who has just hit a new record for episodes of Radio Free Dylan, I like to think of him as the Alec Baldwin of Radio Free Dylan. If Alec Baldwin is the greatest host on Saturday Night Live, Glenn Greenwald is by far our most popular and provocative guest on this podcast, and so I’m not going to carry on…
GLENN: A much more important distinction.
DYLAN: A much more important distinction because Baldwin’s not so provocative.
DYLAN: You have a book, and before we get into the book, I want to talk a little bit about your articulated reason for why a human being should write a book, period. You say, “There’s only one reason to write a book—because you believe that the arguments that you’re making should be heard but are not being heard, and that the book, if it’s successful, can forcibly inject these ideas into mainstream discourse.” What is it that you’re trying to inject?
GLENN: Well, I think the argument of the book is that the rule of law was supposed to mean something very simple, which is that we were all bound by a common set of rules. So even though some of us are going to be very rich and most of us are going to be quite poor and some are going to be powerful and most are going to be powerless, that as long as we were bond by a common set of rules, like equal opportunity, that everybody and everyone understood what the rules where, those outcome in equalities would be legitimate. That idea comes from the founders, each and every one of them. And what we have instead is completely abandoned that over the last four decades explicitly for the first time so that we now believe that those who are most politically and economically powerful are free to transgress the limits of the law without any accountability or consequence, while the overwhelming majority of American, ordinary Americans, those who are powerless, are not only subjected to the rule of law but are subjected to it with some of the most harshest and merciless systems of punishment found anywhere in the world. And so the rule of law has become the opposite of what it was intended to be. It was supposed to be an equalizer and a guarantor of legitimacy, and it has instead become a weapon that is used by the most powerful to entrench their power and to essentially destroy the opportunities of equality that legitimize all the – everything else.
DYLAN: And what do you see as the critical mechanisms that are being utilized to affect this power shift.
GLENN: Well, one of the them is just simply propaganda and the idea that it’s in our common good to allow the most powerful people to break the law with impunity, that if we were to hold them accountable—political leaders or financial tycoons—for the crimes that they committed, that it would be so disruptive, so divisive, so distracting that it would actually harm the society generally and all of us. And, therefore, it’s in our common interest, in our common good to allow them to act with impunity. This was the idea that was originally propagated to justify the pardon by Gerald Ford of Richard Nixon, that it was better for the country not to hold him accountable even though he had committed flagrant crimes, and was then used to do the same in the Iran Contra and then with George Bush and the crimes of the Bush era, torture and more or less eavesdropping and obstruction of justice, and then Wall Street’s systematic fraud in the mortgage realm and precipitating the 2008 financial crisis. It’s really a propagandistic claim that ordinary Americans are better off when the most powerful among them remain free. It sort of is grounded in the way that Capitalism has been sold to the poorest that, you know, a rising tide lifts all boats—that the better off the rich are, the better off you will be, it will all trickle down. It’s a version of that but a more radical version that says that even though these people have committed crimes, you will be the ones harmed if they pay a price.
DYLAN: And how would you compare your assessment of this sort of dual track citizenship that has emerged in this country and is being really codified by the legislatures, explicitly to your point in a way that really it never has been before? But how would you compare the dual track citizenship that America is exhibiting and promoting right now to the litany of examples in history from the Gilded Age to France to the Samurai in Asia to the pharaohs in Egypt? How do you put what we are going through in the context of the history of corruption of power, government, and people?
GLENN: I think it’s comparable, and I say that because it’s interesting, I’ve in the course of the last 48 hours, I’ve done tons of media events in the like relating to my book and have had lots of callers calling in and you hear things like, “I think we’re in period of neo-feudalism,” and “I think we are an oligarchy in a plutocracy.” And it used to be the case that if you applied those kind of terms to the United States of America, you would be a self-marginalized yak. You’d be exposing yourself as a fringe figure or a crank. No, I mean, it’s the United States; we’re not a futile society or an oligarchy. We’re a democracy even with all our flaws. And what you see now is increasing the most mainstream venues, including those kind of discussions, so Nicholas Kristof, a columnist with the New York Times, has written multiple columns saying that the United States is now a banana republic, a third world banana republic. And he’s travelled all around the world and seen the worst economically, most unfair, and oppressive societies, and compares the United States to those place.
One of the most striking episodes along those lines to me was this article in The Atlantic that you’re probably familiar with by Simon Johnson in 2009 called The Quiet Coup, where he’s using the word “coup” to describe the United States government and what has happened the way it financially have taken over the government. And what’s so striking about is Simon Johnson is as establishment as it gets, he was the Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, Professor of Management at MIT, and yet what he said is that he, in his experience of working with very corrupted emerging democracies, emerging market countries like Argentina after their debt collapse and Russia and the Ukraine, that what has happened – what happens is that the financial elites through ramp and corruption cause extreme financial crisis and then use their ownership of the political process to ensure that they are the ones first protected and that that is exactly what has happened in the United States. There’s a coup that has taken place where financial elites now fully own and control both parties, the entire political system so that we no longer even have a democracy. These are the kind of things that you would once hear from Noam Chomsky or people who were just the furthest left or furthest right, dissidents who didn’t make it into mainstream culture. You now hear it from very mainstream figures quite commonly because the evidence, the empirical evidence for it is so compelling.
DYLAN: And the issue with that type of empirical evidence when you look at human behavior, which is really striking whether you look at Dan Ariely’s work at Duke in Behavioral Economics or a lot of the other academics who have done extensive research on how a group of human beings behave when there is an explicit breach of fairness in the allocation of resources to the benefit of one group and the direct exploitation of another group. I think they call it the – I can’t remember – the ultimatum game where they – you decide who gets how many resources and basically the person who is not getting the resources, the person who’s dependant. So if you and I were doing this and I was dependant on you to give me resources, my only option in that game would be to blow the game up. So I can either take the two bits of resources that you give me or I can say no resources for me and no resources for you.
Rational thought would argue, “Well, Dylan will never do that because if he blows it up, he loses his two pieces of food” or resource or whatever it is, and yet it has been proven time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time again that when you breach fairness in such an explicit for human beings that the behavior economic response is pretty much what we saw with the Tea Party before it kind of went haywire. It’s pretty much what we saw with the Obama Wave before it didn’t do anything. And it’s pretty much what we’re seeing with the Occupation and I’m interested in your view, not so much of the Occupation per se, but of the unresolved energy that is pent up in the human beings of this country because they know what you’re talking about. And they may not agree with your characterization of a particular thing, but they know that there has been a breach in the principles of fairness in this country and they are acting and they will continue to act in rejection of it.
GLENN: Yeah, you know, I think you put your finger on a really important point and a misconception about the protest movements that are taking place, both the Tea Party and especially the Occupy protests. For a while, the idea – of course, at first there was befuddlement on the part of our media stars like, “Why would anyone want to protest? Things are going so well. I don’t understand what they’re so angry about.” But then once even they understood that massive joblessness and foreclosures and exploiting income inequality was actually something worth talking about and being angry over. They began assuming that this was nothing more than an outburst, a childish outburst…
DYLAN: A tantrum.
GLENN: …on the part of people who have nothing, demanding that the people who have a lot give more of what they have. Almost as though just basically a socialist demonstration from lazy, failed people who demanding that they be given handouts. And I think that is so wildly wrong. And the reason I think that’s wrong is because Americans, for better or for worst, have been inculcated with the idea that extreme amounts of inequality are actually not just acceptable but inevitable and desirable. That if you have a fair playing field and somebody succeeds greatly and creates…
DYLAN: Steve Jobs gave you the iPhone, get in the Big House.
GLENN: Nobody resents Steve Jobs’ eight billion dollars because there’s a perception that he earned it, that it’s fair and that it’s legitimately earned. And we’ve had massive income and wealth inequality in this country for three decades now. It’s been rapidly increasing well before the 2008 financial crisis, and you didn’t see this complete evaporation in the faith in our political institutions or massive street movements. What has changed is not suddenly that people are angry about income inequality and wealth inequality and believe it’s illegitimate. What has changed is the perception that the people who have everything that they have, the top 1%, or I think more accurately 0.1%, have obtained that not fairly or legitimately or through meritocracy, but those are ill-gotten gains, that they are illegitimate, that the entire system has become illegitimate. And so what they’re angry about is not that they have less than what other people have, what they’re angry about is the people who have more have obtained it through cheating. And I really think that that is what is driving the anger. They can accept and they do accept the idea that income inequality and wealth inequality and opportunity inequality are legitimate and just, it’s when the system doesn’t work because the rules aren’t applied to those people equally that I think the anger and the resentment really justifiably arises.
DYLAN: And if you look not only at the science, but if you look at history, the human response to rejecting the illegitimacy of a system they are being forced to participate in, history is laden with that. And unlike a lot of other issues, like a cloudy day or like indigestion or even like a sprained ankle, this doesn’t go away until you actually resolve the issue of legitimacy.
GLENN: Right. This is why this is not going away. It’s because in the past when Americans felt resentment or anger about particular problems, the way in which it got channeled, you obviously have to provide the populous with an outlet for their anger and their dissatisfaction. Historically in the United States the way that that has been channeled is through the electoral process. People campaign for a particular candidate, they get out on the streets, they lend their fealty to one of the two parties or multiple parties, and that’s why we basically had with some significant exceptions a fairly stable democracy. The perception now obviously is that simply working in the electoral system changes very little, if anything, because the two parties are captive to the same interests and that you can work and work and work for one of the two parties and nothing changes. And that, of course, was the lesson of the Obama Administration. What you’re seeing in the Occupy protest movement is the energy that had been fueling the Obama campaign and candidacy thinking that it was going to bring about this change and then didn’t, it needed a place to go, and a lot of it has gone here. And what’s significant about it is it is outside of the electoral process. They are not there to vote, they are not there to elect a candidate, they are not there out of fealty to one of the two political parties. If anything, they’re hostile to all of that. It is a dissent from the entire political culture. That’s what makes it so significant.
And I think you’re exactly right that they – it’s going to be very difficult to convince those people that the solution, the lie within the electoral process. And ironically, when President Obama was a candidate and a senator, he was making this point all the time that the principle number one problem in American politics is this wide-spread cynicism, the belief that no matter who people vote for, not matter who they elect, nothing changes because the same – they’re going to be captive to the same interests that are not their interests. And he made people believe, he purposely set out to address those people who didn’t want to participate in the political process…
DYLAN: He courted them, he solicited them.
GLENN: Those were his target and he said throw aside your cynicism, for once believe, have hope, and they did. And this was the one time that they agreed to set aside their cynicism and their disbelief and believed that something could actually positive happen. And when it didn’t, ironically he entrenched cynicism and increased it and bolstered it far more than anyone could have done so, far more than it was before.
DYLAN: And so when you look and you set out, obviously, to write this book as a document of the deterioration of the principles of justice and fairness that this country was founded on and forget whether it was founded on it, that the ideas of its basis aspired to.
GLENN: This is the key point. I mean, obviously, when you talk about the American founders and how they believed that equality under the law was so central to everything that we were supposed to do, and they’ve said that and they’ve wrote it and they argued it over and over. And no matter how much other disagreements they had with one another, obviously, there were times that they violated those principles violently. The country was born or…
DYLAN: Pretty much [cross-talking 14:21].
GLENN: You know, I mean, you see principles of equality that are important throughout the Declaration of Independence, on the Constitution, these were important steps in that direction.
DYLAN: If you were a white a guy who owned land.
GLENN: Right. But the principles were the same even though they violently betrayed them in so many ways. But there’s, obviously, if you affirm a principle and then violate it, there’s an element of hypocrisy. But there’s a positive aspect to it, too, which is this is how we as human beings aspire to improvement. So you say “I want to stop eating junk food because I know junk food is bad for me,” even if you get up the next day and eat some potato chips, the fact that you’re still affirming this will drive you to do this better. Once you renounce the principle and you just give in and say, “I no longer think it’s important to eat better,” that’s when things go very wrong. And so even though we were obviously having all kinds of inequality, plagued by inequality throughout our first two centuries, the fact that we continue to affirm this principle and then eventually wrote it into the 14th Amendment, equality under the law, equal protection under the law, meant that we continue to move in that direction, and that is the history of the United States—disenfranchisement of women became the right of women to vote, slavery of African-Americans became emancipation and the elimination of Jim Crow, constantly moving in the direction of equality under the law. And what has really happened over the past four decades is not just that we violated the principle, because that’s been going on forever, it’s that we’ve stopped even affirming it, so you see explicit arguments all the time from the most important opinion-making elites in the society about why elites and people in power and people who are financially most powerful need not and should not be held accountable under the rule of law. Criminal processes, indictments, prosecutions, imprisonment, those are for the people who are selling drugs on the corner that you see as you drive by outside your window. They’re not for the Secretary of Defense. They’re not for high political officials. They’re not for heads of Wall Street firms. And this is an express repudiation of equality under the law that really is what makes things so different now.
DYLAN: And what do you see as the opportunity – as somebody who has not just an analysis of the problem, but an understanding of the mechanics of power in this country, what are tools, mechanics, levers, or devices that you see available to the public that they might engage, whether it’s an Occupy or a Tea Party or a member of the media or somebody who’s none of the above, that are the available tools that we may not even be aware of that were we to organize and engage could potentially benefit this country?
GLENN: Well, it gets a little bit back to what you were talking about earlier. I mean, in essence, there are two broadly speaking, two potential limitations on those in power abusing that power. One is that you impose rule on them and then enforce those rules, which is what we call law, and we’re not doing that any longer. So that doesn’t work in part because they own the institutions that are meant to write those laws, and when they want, they just abolish them like they did in the 1990s with the orgy of deregulation. Or even when they violate the rules, they own the government that’s suppose to enforce it and they don’t end up being investigated or prosecuted, so these rules no longer work to constrain them. So the only other option that exists, broadly speaking, to constrain people who are in power is fear, the fear of what will happen to the system that is providing tem with these prerogatives and to the people over whom they’re exercising this power if they continue to abuse it. And I think what has been lacking more than anything, other than the failure of law, is the fact that we are a complacent citizenry. We basically have ingested the idea of helplessness; we’ve learned our own impedance. And I think elites have been entirely liberated from any kind of fear whatsoever. And I think the reason why protest movements in the street are so important is because it is necessary to put a fear back into the heart of people in power. And, you know, the – ever since I’ve been writing about politics, the one issue, the question no matter how, and I can present a really compelling case about how corrupt someone is or about how hypocritical something is, and the question that everyone will have no matter how compelling the case you make is, “What can be done about this?’ It seems like if all these forces are right against us, how can I do anything about it?” And this defeatism has an antidote, and you see the antidote, for example, in the Arab Spring where the citizens of those countries, even though they are far less resourceful in terms of what they have access to than we are and face far greater entrenchment of tyrannical power than we do, were able to subvert it. Not fully, it’s not complete, there’s a lot of ways that it’s failed or where it hasn’t succeeded, but they have clearly put the fear in the heart of power factions that for decades were immune from it. And that’s the model that American citizens have to use, as well. It doesn’t mean necessarily replicating it exactly, we’re a different culture, we have different problems, but absolutely the people in power need to understand that there are limits on what the citizenry is willing to tolerate.
DYLAN: That is becoming startlingly clear I think as each and every day passes, and I suspect that that ultimately -- I hope it’s one of those things where you have to boil water to make dinner, but you hope you don’t burn yourself in the process.
GLENN: I mean, citizen unrest and disruptions are volatile and they’re unpredictable and they are dangerous, but so too is the status quo.
DYLAN: Exactly. And without taking the risk of engagement, the certainty of the continued abuse is unavoidable.
GLENN: Well, I guess, you know, we revere the founders, and if you look at what they did, they were all relatively rich people who were extremely comfortable materially in their lives, and they embarked on one of the riskiest conflicts ever in challenging the greatest empire on earth at the time, they risked everything—they material comfort and their lives—in pursuit of these conceptual freedoms. And we can affect change with far less dangerous risks than that, but some level of disruption and some level of descent, and a clear decree that we’re unwilling to tolerate this further is absolutely prerequisite for anything to change.
DYLAN: I could not agree with that more. And, Glenn, as both a student and admirer of your work, I’m pleased not only to talk to you but excited to read your latest book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: (are you one of those some?) How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful from a man who says the only reason to write a book is because you believe that the arguments you’re making should be heard but are not being heard. And the book, if it’s successful, can forcibly inject these ideas into the mainstream discourse. Here’s wishing Mr. Greenwald all the best success in that objective. And that will do it for us today on Radio Free Dylan. Thank you, Glenn.
GLENN: Thank you.