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Some useful observations in the service of a fantastic argument.
on October 30, 2011
When I say fantastic, I mean of or relating to fantasy. And that fantasy is the idea that the "law" or the "state" ever equally represented people, that it was ever not a tool ultimately under the control of the economically powerful, that it ever functioned to provide liberty and justice for ALL.
As he does on his blog, Glenn fills his book with example after example of the legal double standards in the United States. It is in pointing out these double standards that he's at his most impassioned and readable. But just as his strengths carry over from his blog to the book, so do his weaknesses. The biggest one is that Glenn never really gets beyond the listing of grievances to offer a compelling explanation of why injustice has grown in recent decades (although, to Glenn's credit, he notes it has coincided with a massively growing economic gap). In other words, Glenn describes well, but explains poorly.
His attempt to provide an over arching framework is to cite the pardon of Nixon as a watershed moment, as if the pardon was a consciousness raising moment for political elites who were then emboldened to break the law with impunity. The problem with this historical narrative isn't that Nixon's pardon wasn't exceptional. It was indeed exceptional, but for a completely different reason. It symbolized a brief moment in U.S. history where grassroots pressure resulted in the exposure of crimes at the highest level of government. It was the exposure of the crimes, crimes which LBJ, JFK, and so many other previous presidents (of both parties) engaged in, that was remarkable. Not the fact that political leaders were getting away with the crimes, not the fact that political leaders began to expect to get away with their misdeeds.
Glenn fails to offer any decent explanatory foundation for the problem he identifies because he doesn't grasp enough of the history of power and how it has operated in the United States. An unfortunate consequence of this is the implication that we need to get back to some kind of legal garden of eden that Glenn seems to think we have fallen away from after Gerald Ford bit the forbidden fruit. It appears Greenwald hasn't read Howard Zinn, or has any familiarity with the fact that the powerful have always believed that their political and legal domination are the equivalent of justice for all, even when that "justice" has excluded women, Native Americans, African Americans, etc. Today is no different. There is injustice and inequality that benefit the people who think society and its application of laws are just and equal. The only notable change has been in how the elites reconcile their domination with the myth of equality.
The problem with Glenn's failure to construct an adequate explanatory frame is that it leaves him confused about where to go politically. Because Glenn keeps looking back to a paradisical time when capitalism supposedly rewarded the hard-working and punished the slothful, because he mistakes a presidential pardon with the underlying roots of inequality and injustice, he is left in a situation where he senses that roots of injustice run deep but where he is still implicitly wedded to the notion of "reclaiming" the democratic party. As if the party was ever not dominated by the powerful, who have only occasionally had to make concessions in periods of intense popular upheaval.
After hundreds of pages, the reader is left convinced that the law is indeed largely formulated by and at the behest of the powerful. But this observation is hardly new. Crack open any text by Marx or Bakunin, and you'll get a much more compelling expose, one that links up with an explanatory map capable of guiding activists who want to change the world for the better.