Politics, stories, and lies
In November 2008, I leaped from my seat in my third-floor one-room bedroom apartment in Long Beach, California when Barack Obama was named the next president of the United States.
I whooped and hollered out my window, pausing only briefly to wonder why people of color–the majority, by far, in my neighborhood–were silent. Why was I, the lone white woman in my building, shouting exuberantly about the election of a person of color to the highest office in the United States when everyone else in my neighborhood was silent?
The United States was poised for change. I wasn’t sure exactly what change, but I knew it was gonna be great. I mean, just listen to the man talk!
And if not great? Obama couldn’t be worse than George W. Bush.
It’d take the opposite of a miracle to be worse than Dubya.
In November 2012, I was a rare Democrat amongst Republicans at my office.
While the Republicans around me assured each other it was a good day to be a Republican, I marveled how disconnected they appeared to be from polls not aired on Fox News.
I wasn’t thrilled to be voting for Obama, whose presidency hadn’t brought any change so notable I celebrated it on election day, but I knew Democrats were The Good Guys. Obama was a Democrat. I was voting for Obama. Therefore, I was a Good Guy. Maybe the good guys weren’t great that year, but hey. It was better than being a Republican Bad Guy.
In early August 2016, I saw Obama speak and understood at a gut level: This is not a Good Guy.
The fact he spoke so confidently on national media didn’t make me feel comforted. I didn’t see him and think, “Oh, the president says it’s true! Media sources indicate it’s true by sweepingly presenting his words as truth!” I saw him speak and thought, “This man is a puppet. But for whom, then, is he a puppet? And for whom does the media make those strings dance?”
I sought out the author of an article I’d read when the AP proclaimed Clinton the Democratic nominee before polls even opened in California: “Perfect End to Democratic Primary: Anonymous Superdelegates Declare Winner Through Media.” That article’s author, former constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald, seemed to be much more intimately acquainted with U.S. politics than was I. Seeking him out, I discovered he’d written many books. I bought one, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful, and promptly began reading.
With each page I read, I became more and more horrified that I’d voted for Obama. For Democrats. Because they were the Democrats.
The Good Guys … or so I thought, then.
In the first chapter of With Liberty and Justice for Some, Greenwald traces the origins of U.S. elite immunity to a single, discrete genesis: President Ford’s pardon of President Nixon. Ford pardoned Nixon, but phrased his pardon as a gift to the American people: an opportunity for them to forego the bitter, divisive pain of prosecuting a former president. As Greenwald explains, this became “the template for justifying elite immunity” in the U.S.:
Prosecuting public officials mires us in a “divisive” past when we should be looking forward. It is wrong to “criminalize policy disputes”–meaning crimes committed with the use of political power. Political elites who commit crimes in carrying out their duties are “well-intentioned” and so do not deserve to be treated as if they were common criminals; moreover, politicians who are forced out of office and have their reputations damaged already “suffer enough.” To prosecute them would only engender a cycle of retribution. Political harmony thus trumps the need to enforce the rule of law.
Following Ford’s pardon, Ford’s press secretary, Jerald terHorst, resigned. He wrote in protest of the “two-tiered system of justice he believed the pardons would entrench,” “Try as I can, it is impossible to conclude that the former president is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national wellbeing.”
In the pages that follow, Greenwald cites numerous examples of how Ford’s template of justice was applied in the decades leading up to and including George W. Bush’s presidency. Oliver North, in one charming example to all who would follow, bragged proudly about how he “made false statements to [Congress] about [his] activities in support of the Contras.”
Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, was convicted of four felonies; he’d made the mistake of crossing other elites, specifically within the CIA. Had his transgressions impacted anyone less politically significant, he’d likely have waltzed away scot free.
Politicians and media agents alike sought to have Libby exonerated: “As they saw it, Libby was the kind of person who did not deserve to be branded a felon–and thus could not be a felon–even if had committed felonies.”
Those who called for his exoneration had no concept that, as Greenwald explained, “it is not uncommon for people to be punished for obstruction of justice and perjury. What is uncommon is for anyone to pay attention when it happens, let alone object on their behalf, because they typically are not people with powerful connections.”
For those with powerful connections, such as North and Libby, lack of meaningful consequence is now a given.
Consequences are for the little people.
In his second chapter, Greenwald explains early that “section 1809 of FISA provided that anyone who violates its mandates by eavesdropping without the requisite judicial approval has committed a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for each offense.”
Regardless, under George W. Bush, telecom companies “eagerly complied with the government’s illegal [warrantless eavesdropping] program, lured by the mammoth profits to be earned from the growing surveillance state.” Trivial matters like “legality” were not nearly as important to telecom companies as the fact they could roll in the money from forking over their customer data en masse to the government.
Members of the elite media expressed deep concern for the potential “costly litigation” the telecom companies would face as they “battled the under-funded, tiny nonprofit groups representing ordinary Americans [highlighting] the exclusive fixation on the interests of elites by much of our media class.”
Thanks to lots of lobbying, the executive branch and telecom companies in conjunction won over Republican and Democrat representatives alike, obtaining retroactive immunity not only for the government … but also for willing private participants in the government’s unlawful activities.
This was, in large part, thanks to Barack Obama, who went from campaigning on a promise to “support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies” to not only voting against the filibuster but for the immunity-granting FISA Amendments Act of 2008, also supported by Democrats Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Rahm Emanuel.
Liberty‘s third chapter, “Too Big to Jail,” is possibly more horrific than the preceding chapter.
Greenwald early references Simon Johnson, “former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and current economics professor at MIT, who argued that a “financial oligarchy” “exerts nearly full control over America’s political institutions.” Johnson likened the U.S.’s responses to the 2008 financial crisis to “places such as Ukraine, Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, and South Korea [where elites’ behavior had tanked economies]. In all those cases, the same financial elites whose recklessness and illegality brought the economic crisis used their power over political institutions to ensure that they were the prime beneficiaries of the governments’ response.” Greenwald points out that many of the changes leading to this crisis were ushered in by Bill Clinton’s administration.
The revolving doors that see corporate head honchos alternately working for corporations and the government, being paid by taxpayer money to help pass legislation that will benefit them and theirs when they’re back in the private portion of their dual-facing careers, are as lucrative for the elite as they are destructive to non-elite citizens.
Those who benefit by the laws are making the laws, and otherwise in bed with those tasked with blessing them into law.
It’s a very comfy bed into which very, very few people fit.
But it doesn’t matter who doesn’t fit in the bed, because those who can’t pay for a space in the bed don’t matter.
So, “[d]espite the magnitude of the [very evident, widespread] fraud–or, more accurately, because of it–the political class quickly reacted not by attempting to impose accountability on these banks, but rather by rushing to protect them from accountability.”
Opined one law professor, “[t]he first thing our Congress could think to do was to endorse legal cover for [the banks who “created significant legal exposure for themselves ‘by committing fraud upon the courts'”], as eagerly as it retroactively immunized warrantless wiretapping…. If we continue to subordinate the rule of law to the whim of banks, what former IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson described as the ‘quiet coup’ will be complete.”
Indeed, one bank whistleblower earlier this month rejected an $8.25 million reward. Why? Because the bank itself, not individual high-level wrongdoers, was fined for elite individuals’ malign actions.
Wrote the whistleblower, Eric Ben-Artzi, “I request that my share of the award be given to Deutsche and its stakeholders, and the award money clawed back from the bonuses paid to the Deutsche executives, especially the former top SEC attorneys.”
Liberty‘s most disturbing chapter by far is “Immunity by Presidential Decree.”
The long and short of this is that George W. Bush’s administration committed acts deemed criminal by law by covertly surveilling, detaining, and illegally torturing even U.S. citizens.
Obama initially said that “nobody is above the law.” That being so, he proclaimed prior to his election that any war crimes perpetrated by prior administrations should be investigated. Yet after Obama won the election, he “passionately devoted himself to blocking and suppressing all investigations of the Bush administration, whether carried out by the DOJ or by Congress, by U.S. courts or by judges overseas. Thus began Obama’s crusade as a champion of elite immunity–of the very ‘Scooter Libby justice’ he had vowed to end.”
In so doing, he and his “thus profoundly violated both the president’s specific constitutional duty to ‘take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed’ and the general principle of equality under the law.”
Like Ford, Obama insisted that we must not be basely retributive. We need to look forward, not backward: “what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.”
Points out one of Greenwald’s previously quoted sources, we don’t have safe flights because we fail to investigate after a plane crash. We investigate the hell out of each crash, and then adapt technology and process to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes again. “Getting things right in the future,” then, necessarily involves looking backward to ensure non-repetition of past mistakes. (This isn’t even a political thing; it’s basic project management.)
Writes Greenwald, “‘Look forward, not backward,’ became the mantra that Obama and his top aides would endlessly repeat to justify their active suppression of all forms of accountability for crimes committed by the Bush administration.”
And why not? Obama himself thereby benefits, for “by letting criminal bygones be bygones within the executive branch, presidents uphold a gentlemen’s agreement to shield each other from accountability for any crimes they might want to commit in office.”
Under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, failing to investigate acts of torture is itself a crime “separate from the original acts of torture.”
Obama didn’t care. Indeed, “[s]everal Bush officials with direct involvement in the torture regime now enjoy high-level positions in Obama’s administration.”
When Spain acted against U.S. torture of five Spanish citizens, Obama said, “I’m a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards.” A cable from Obama’s State Department warned Spanish authorities that efforts to hold “Bush torturers accountable would, as one cable put it, ‘not be understood or accepted in the US and would have an enormous impact on the bilateral relationship.'”
When Italy found “twenty-two CIA agents guilty of the 2003 kidnapping of an Islamic cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr [off Italian streets],” Obama’s administration expressed its emphatic denunciation before “actively [protecting] these CIA agents from any extradition attempts by the Italian authorities.”
Britain’s High Court ruled that one Guantanamo detainee “was entitled to obtain the documents to prove that he had been tortured in American custody.” The U.S. threatened the court against releasing details, stating that “U.S. intelligence agencies would no longer pass on to Britain any information about terrorist plots aimed at British citizens.”
While Obama insists that U.S. citizens must look forward, not backward, he’s repeatedly stressed–to other countries–“the importance of acknowledging past human rights abuses.” See, e.g., Indonesia and Ghana. For extra giggles, see Cambodia, where then Secretary of State Clinton “insisted that ‘a country that is able to confront its past is a country that can overcome it.'”
You’ll have to read the book itself–please do!–for background on “state secrets,” which the U.S. executive branch can and does use (with special fervency under the Obama administration) as an excuse to prevent courts from hearing matters it unilaterally deems too sensitive for other ears.
Greenwald goes on to discuss Obama’s hit list. Yes, the U.S. president can unilaterally designate people–including U.S. citizens–for assassination, thus acting as judge, jury, and executioner.
Where are the checks? Where are the balances? If you find them, please be sure to let me know.
I can’t begin to do this chapter justice here. Again, I’d urge you to buy the book yourself and see the many, terrifying ways that the U.S. executive branch has actively worked to curtail the checks and balances devised by our nation’s founders, for “[f]igures in both parties would find it very hard at this point to point the finger at the White House, without also implicating themselves.”
The sweeping, diligently constructed executive immunity we’ve witnessed thus far will simply be the starting point for the next president, who will walk into office with full, permanent pardon guaranteed from day one. Who, following in the footsteps of predecessors who’ve worked hard to eradicate checks and balances limiting executive power, will be free to make and break law as it pleases.
History and present alike inform that it will please.
The final chapter is one of special significance to me.
In this chapter, Greenwald talks about how the immunity by which U.S. elites benefit is opposite the disproportionately cruel punishment meted out against non-elites.
Incarceration in the U.S. increased tenfold between 1970 and 2008. Fewer than one in five of those arrested have committed crimes that would have directly hurt another human being.
So why this extraordinary incarceration rate? Because incarceration is extremely profitable for corporations and a handful of elite individuals, never mind that it destroys countless “non-elite” lives, particularly those of people of color; that laws are enforced differently based on a person’s skin color is now, based on evidence, indisputable (by rational human beings).
Americans are “‘locked up for crimes…that would rarely produce sentences in other countries.'” The United States is a “‘rogue state, a country that has made a decision not to follow what is a normal Western approach.'”
Why is this of special significance to me?
This weekend, a dear friend, one of the small handful I entrust to watch my children, will celebrate a birthday. It’ll be the second birthday she celebrates without her husband of a decade. ‘Cause, see, her husband died while she was imprisoned thanks to prosecutors in a county so corrupt, all its 250 prosecutors were barred from prosecuting one death sentence case.
If you’re really, really careful, and watch really closely, you can see how she blinks back and cringes.
“Them” are people she now knows and loves.
“Them” are people who don’t deserve the sentences with which they’ve been tortured.
To imply they deserve it where she could not have, and to imply that those (elites) who escape prison completely must have not deserved prison, is–it appears, and feels from the outside–a torture of its own right.*
With Ra’s beautiful, loving, smiling image etched in my heart, I read one particular Liberty excerpt and understood the kind of thing I really wished I could un-understand: “So why do Americans tolerate such a draconian legal system, one which imprisons exceptionally large numbers of people for no good reason? The answer is clear: because most people believe–correctly–that they themselves are unlikely to be sucked into its vortex.”
If you’re online to be reading this, you’re unlikely to be “sucked into its vortex.” You’re wealthy and connected enough to fall outside its commonest purview, as–probably–will be your offspring, your friends, and acquaintances.
Many Americans acquiesce to the prison state because neither they nor their families nor their friends are at risk. That’s what allows the population to largely tolerate and even cheer for a system that imposes extreme punishments for the pettiest offenses. Only a person with little power, money, or status is likely to feel the full brunt of America’s harshest laws. Indeed given the severity of its provisions, the contemporary American criminal justice system would be unsustainable if it were applied with equity across the population.
Greenwald concludes the chapter by demonstrating how Obama’s administration has been uncommonly cruel toward government whistleblowers. It’s invoked “state secrets privilege” to engage in unchecked questionable (at best) behavior, effectively skirting the checks and balances of judicial and legislative branches of government, and thus further strengthening itself at the cost of those who have the audacity to reveal its horrific cruelties.
Per Greenwald in early July 2016, “As has been widely noted, the Obama administration has prosecuted more leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all prior administrations combined.” Its disinterest in any kind of legal recourse began (and will presumably end) with Clinton’s private email server.
And why not? If you could position yourself–and your friends, and benefactors–to be above the law, retroactively, presently, and in the future, wouldn’t it be a little bit tempting?
The thing is, the law should help circumvent that temptation, not be rewritten to enable it.
Why am I compelled to write about this? My answer is in my past.
This is how the multitiered justice system preserves itself: by targeting those with the weakest voices, the smallest constituencies, and the least ability to resist. Indeed, those who abuse state power virtually always follow the same playbook. By initially targeting new abuses at groups that are sufficiently demonized, they guarantee that few will object. But abuses of power rarely, if ever, remained confined to these demonized groups. Rather, degraded principles of justice, once embraced in limited circumstances, in time inevitably come to be applied more broadly.
As I have faced the upcoming presidential election, I’ve been told I must vote Democrat. To do anything otherwise would simply be unconscionable, because Trump!
After Sanders was shoved off the Democratic platform, I struggled to force myself into voting for Clinton. I even succeeded, briefly, accepting my complicity until the moment I heard Obama call the prospect of potential election fraud “ridiculous.”
That was my moment of truth.
I encountered many predators in my youth. Anyone who’s read this blog for any amount of time knows this.
Numerous times, I witnessed–with my own eyes and ears–pedophiles head off trouble by warning their wives there’d be stories and lies coming soon. Their wives accepted the fact that me and my family members were “trouble” because that narrative was easier for them to accept. The alternative, that they were married to men who could sexually assault children, would have unraveled the core of their comfortable existence. They couldn’t do that, so they accepted that my (single) mom lied for some ulterior motive they couldn’t quite grasp.
When Albright, then, says there’s “a special place in hell” for women who don’t vote for Clinton, I don’t hear an argument for positive change. I hear someone with a vested interest in upholding her narrative that she herself is good, and that, further, Clinton is good, therefor anything or anyone against Clinton has nefarious motives and deserves my judgment and condemnation.
I hear a wife saying, “If I plug my ears hard enough, I won’t have to listen to these horrible notes, or face the implications of what the world might truly be were they real. Of what it might mean about me.”
My experiences taught me that predators aren’t ugly, vile creatures with horns and snaggleteeth. They’re calm, gentle, kindly people so charming in their quietude that others around them say, “Him?! Do something wrong? You lie!”
This means that when I hear someone–even the President–tell me what I ought believe, I become especially sensitive to why it is that someone thinks I ought believe it.
When I look at Clinton, I see Obama’s third term. I see breadcrumbs tossed at peasants (“ooh, look at this especially big crumb!”) while wealthy elites dine on dozens of fresh loaves. I see further enhanced immunity for elites. After all, political elites, media agents, and then most those Democrats with whom I speak face to face don’t find disturbing the fact Clinton intentionally set up a private server to evade FOIA requests. No biggie–she’s a member of the elite class, after all! We need to give politicians lots of leeway to … help us?
The fact that issues around Clinton’s email server are the least of more than a dozen scandals surrounding her and her Clinton Foundation as a type this? Well, calling attention to that is simply partisan bullshit!
As I read mainstream media “journalists” supporting her and castigating adversarial journalists as Putin-lovers, I am chilled.
For Greenwald addressed this, too, in his 2012 book: “Indeed, the American political class barely bothers any longer with even the pretense of legal accountability and, with increasing frequency, is being quite blatant about its repudiation of it.”
Anyone watching closely enough is seeing this now.
If the media supports you–thanks to your husband’s presidential acts to crush true investigative journalism–why, then, wouldn’t the folks who think the media still seeks and reports facts also support you? Why couldn’t you count on their enduring praise no matter what wrongs you commit, understanding that they are pliable and you are above the law?
I exited the Democratic party on June 10, 2016.
I will not be voting for Hillary “Those Women Are Trash” Clinton, but Clinton’s only a symptom of what I’m not voting for.
I won’t vote for Obama’s third term. I won’t vote for Democrats. I won’t vote for The Deep State that values the dollars of lobbyists, corporations, and billionaires over the lives of me and the extraordinary, not-little people I love.
I won’t vote for fracking and TPP and environmental devastation in addition to destructive human inequality. (Remember, looking at Obama pre-election and Obama now, that it’s not the pre-election words that matter. It’s the acts, and in this case, “acts” include selecting Kaine as VP and Salazar to chair Clinton’s transition team. Words reveal nothing substantial; acts such as appointments, everything.)
I won’t vote for arming dictatorships that suppress and execute dissenters, women, and gay people, including regimes that target civilian centers with airstrikes using U.S. provided weapons. I won’t vote for anti-feminism that disguises itself as feminism, understanding that blithely supporting middle and upper class women in the United States by supporting Clinton means giving my thumbs-up to the murder of sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, mothers, and fathers in countries the United States would disregard–which is to say, not actively assist destroying–but for strategic interests in oil and other local resources.
Again, acts speak louder than words. When we say we are feminists but support dictators who crush women and their families, our words are irrelevant to the truth.
I won’t vote for Democrats. I won’t vote for a two-tier justice system including enduring bipartisan immunity for those who destroy civilian lives here and elsewhere to enhance their own, or a small segment of their nation’s, power.
I will vote for social justice, for sustainability, and for peace.
I will vote for equality for all women, regardless of country boundaries, and for collaboration over bombing that destroys homes and creates new generations of terrorists from their ashes.
I will vote for peace, and love, and hope. I will do this not because I’m a senseless, uninformed, naive hippie, but because I am now too informed to possibly–given the contours of my heart–vote otherwise.
* Ra’s opinions were in no way involved in the making of this post.
All opinions and the words around them are exclusively mine,
and I alone own any inadvertent misrepresentations.
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