Sunday, October 30, 2011

Greenwald gets it half right

As you might know, Glenn Greenwald has published a new book titled "With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful." You might have seen him on TV shows like Rachel Maddow's promoting it. He's also written articles like this that basically summarize the content. In that article, he's trying to answer the question "why OWS now?" He establishes that income inequality has been with us in this country for a long time and suggests that the difference now is that inequality is stemming from the unfairness of our justice system.

Here's the half of the equation that Greenwald gets right.

In lieu of the rule of law - the equal application of rules to everyone - what we have now is a two-tiered justice system in which the powerful are immunised, while the powerless are punished with increasing mercilessness.

The reality of a two-tiered justice system in this country is a fact - and one where the consequences these days are increasingly felt by people of color (African Americans in our prison system and Latinos in detention facilities).

But here's where Greenwald gets it wrong.

Many Americans who once accepted or even cheered such inequality now see the gains of the richest as ill-gotten, as undeserved, as cheating. Most of all, the legal system that once served as the legitimising anchor for outcome inequality, the rule of law - that most basic of American ideals, that a common set of rules are equally applied to all - has now become irrevocably corrupted and is seen as such.

Greenwald is delusional if he thinks that there was ever a time in this country's history when the "rule of law" applied equally to everyone...where the ruling class was punished for its crimes. In the interview with Maddow, he actually tries to date the movement away from the rule of law to Ford's pardon of Nixon.

Listening to and reading Greenwald took me back immediately to a book written by Derrick Jensen titled "The Culture of Make Believe." Its a powerful work that examines the history of hate and violence in this country - and our ongoing attempts to stay blind to that reality.

Jensen documents the founding of this country in slavery and genocide...crimes that were never punished in any kind of meaningful way and still haunt us in our culture today. But he also tells the story of companies like Dow Chemical/Union Carbide and families like the Morgans (as in J.P. Morgan) who have been fearlessly committing crimes with impunity against people in both this country and abroad - all while enjoying government bailouts along the way. In other words, what's happening today has been going on for a VERY long time. Its our ignorance about history that makes us think its something new.

What's dangerous about this lack of awareness about our history is that it also blinds us to movements that have been the flip side of this reality. Those crimes and inequalities led to things like the labor and civil rights movements - where the struggle continues today. Pretending like there was some haloed past that is now in jeopardy means that we loose the wisdom of our forefathers/mothers and any sense of continuity with their victories and failures. It also leaves those who have been fighting the battle ever since feeling marginalized rather than empowered.

One thing that Greenwald and OWS might learn from those movements of the past is that they spent their time trying to raise up the oppressed rather than focusing all their efforts on bringing down the powerful. But perhaps that's a story for another day. For now, lets just try to remember our history correctly.

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