[17 September 2012]
See this book? Then grab it. Read it. Shove it into everyone’s face. Because this is the kind of text supporters of progress and justice urgently need. We need its honesty and clarity; its focus on what matters; and its expertise—the author, Glenn Greenwald, is a former constitutional law and civil rights attorney.
We also need its courage, for it tells us what many suspect, but few dare to shout out. That the laws and policies of America—a nation that prides itself on respect for due process, democracy, and opportunity for all—are stacked, deliberately, in favor of the elite.
It isn’t just that said elite can wield vast resources to bend the rules in its favor—by, for example, spending millions on lawyers, lobbyists, and campaign contributions. It’s worse than that. As Greenwald demonstrates, the highest ranks of American society are now openly declaring themselves to be above the law whenever it fracking suits them.
The iconic example of self-declared elite immunity—one that Greenwald regards as a historic turning point—is, of course, Watergate. Not because of the actual import of the crimes committed—break-ins, theft, obstruction of justice, etc.—but because it established, in Nixon’s own turn of phrase, that ‘when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal’.
It certainly isn’t. Nixon was pardoned by his chosen Vice President, Gerald Ford—a stroke of luck not granted to any of the millions of ordinary criminals languishing in American jails. (As Greenwald reminds us, the US now houses nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners.)
More recent cases discussed in this book—the Iran-Contra scandal, Iraqgate, warrantless eavesdropping, and more—are hardly news, but by pulling them together Greenwald shows us a pattern. Here before our eyes are not just a few slip-ups, but systematic law-breaking at the very summit of American society.
Thus every administration since Nixon, Democratic as well as Republican, has turned a blind eye to the crimes of its predecessors; while simultaneously ramping up law-and-order rhetoric and incarcerating a growing number of the poor.
At least Nixon tried to hide stuff, fighting all the way to the Supreme Court to avoid releasing the incriminating tapes. We have now reached the point where, in his published memoirs, George W. Bush can openly boast of authorizing waterboarding—a crime under both American and international law—in full confidence that he will go untried and unpunished.
The pattern, Greenwald also shows, spreads beyond politics and deep into the private sector, which often—as in the case of the telecoms firms involved in secret and illegal domestic electronic surveillance—aids government in exchange for fat contracts and preferential treatment. The incestuous relationship between the public and the private sector in the US is nothing short, as he puts it, of ‘banana-republic-like corruption’ (87). It isn’t surprising, then, that hardly anyone has been held legally accountable in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash—not even after banks were found in 2010 to have illicitly foreclosed on the homes of hundreds of thousands of Americans. The corporate elite, it appears, is ‘too big to jail’ (101)—though not too big for bail.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the social pile, things are different. The last chapter of this book shows in stark contrast what life is like for the most justice-deprived segments of the American population: the poor and racial minorities. Here, rapidly growing inequality at the economic level (the ‘richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of the nation’s income, up from less than 9 percent in 1976’, p.270) feeds into, and thrives on, legal inequality.
Many readers will be shocked to hear that American law now criminalizes so many instances of everyday behavior—from smoking marijuana to making a mistake on a tax return—that virtually every citizen is a criminal. Only, you are far more likely to be treated as one if you happen to look a certain way or live in a certain sort of neighborhood.
In other words, it’s not what you do that counts, but who you are—the very definition of privilege and tyranny. How Americans feel about all this is hard to gauge, but in any case Greenwald says that public anger today ‘is impotent; it has no mechanisms to produce consequences’ (152).
Eventually, though, he warns, social unrest will result ‘when a population is forced to suffer mass joblessness and deprivations of every kind while it sees a tiny sliver of elites enjoying gilded prosperity; when ordinary people are threatened with imprisonment for petty offenses while they see elites illegally spying, invading, torturing, and plundering with nearly total impunity’ (274).
It remains to be seen whether the good people of America ultimately prevail against this gross injustice, as they have done in the past.