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Immunity And Impunity In Elite America, By Glenn Greenwald

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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What if, last Friday, President Obama had stepped to the podium at the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room and begun his remarks this way: "Good afternoon, everybody.  As a candidate for President, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end -- for the sake of our national security and to strengthen American leadership around the world.  After taking office, I announced a new strategy that would end our combat mission in Iraq and remove all of our troops by the end of 2011.  Today, I'm here to tell you that I'm breaking that pledge.  It will not happen.  Instead, I'm leaving 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops in that country indefinitely."

Of course, the president made no such claim (nor, if things had turned out differently in Iraq, would he have done so).  Nonetheless, according to news reports, such an outcome -- thousands of American troops in Iraq, possibly for years -- was the administration's first choice, while military commanders were evidently eager to leave tens of thousands of troops behind.  It was the outcome that Washington had been negotiating for and lobbying Iraqi politicians about all year.  Because the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to give U.S. troops legal immunity, full withdrawal (with the possibility of reinsertion later) became the administration's default position, and President Obama was left to take unreserved credit for fulfilling an election campaign pledge to bring all U.S. troops home by the end of 2011, the outcome he hadn't wanted.  ("Today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year...")  Keep this in mind as well: given the State Department's militarization there -- it plans to run a mercenary "army" of perhaps 5,000 hired guns from its monster Baghdad embassy in 2012 -- and a recent, little-noted statement by Iraqi cleric and American opponent Muqtada al-Sadr, the American war will not necessarily end next year either.

Mainstream papers reported all this, including the preferred plans for staying in Iraq, even while hailing the president's decision to leave and keep his pledge, with no hint of the striking hypocrisy involved.  (The New York Times front-page headline read: "Last U.S. Soldiers to Exit From Iraq in 2011, Obama Says, Fulfilling Vow to End Eight-Year War -- Dispute With Baghdad Is Cited.")  Whether anyone outside the mainstream media is impressed with this sort of presidential maneuver anymore is an open question. Certainly, Glenn Greenwald wasn't and that shouldn't surprise anyone.  With his scathingly on-target regular columns at Salon.com, it would be no exaggeration to say that Greenwald has had a hand in making many of us immune to American political and financial hypocrisy of every sort.

Now, he's written a new book, just out today, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful, that -- again, who could be surprised? -- is surely the book for the Occupy Wall Street moment in this country.  Riveting to read, it's a must for understanding how immunity and impunity became, economically and legally, a way of life for the Washington and Wall Street elite. Tom

Immunity and Impunity in Elite America
How the Legal System Was Deep-Sixed and Occupy Wall Street Swept the Land

By Glenn Greenwald

As intense protests spawned by Occupy Wall Street continue to grow, it is worth asking: Why now? The answer is not obvious. After all, severe income and wealth inequality have long plagued the United States. In fact, it could reasonably be claimed that this form of inequality is part of the design of the American founding -- indeed, an integral part of it.

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Income inequality has worsened over the past several years and is at its highest level since the Great Depression.  This is not, however, a new trend. Income inequality has been growing at rapid rates for three decades.  As journalist Tim Noah described the process:

"During the late 1980s and the late 1990s, the United States experienced two unprecedentedly long periods of sustained economic growth -- the "seven fat years' and the "long boom.' Yet from 1980 to 2005, more than 80% of total increase in Americans' income went to the top 1%. Economic growth was more sluggish in the aughts, but the decade saw productivity increase by about 20%. Yet virtually none of the increase translated into wage growth at middle and lower incomes, an outcome that left many economists scratching their heads."

The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated the trend, but not radically: the top 1% of earners in America have been feeding ever more greedily at the trough for decades.

In addition, substantial wealth inequality is so embedded in American political culture that, standing alone, it would not be sufficient to trigger citizen rage of the type we are finally witnessing. The American Founders were clear that they viewed inequality in wealth, power, and prestige as not merely inevitable, but desirable and, for some, even divinely ordained. Jefferson praised "the natural aristocracy" as "the most precious gift of nature" for the "government of society." John Adams concurred: "It already appears, that there must be in every society of men superiors and inferiors, because God has laid in the" course of nature the foundation of the distinction."

Not only have the overwhelming majority of Americans long acquiesced to vast income and wealth disparities, but some of those most oppressed by these outcomes have cheered it loudly. Americans have been inculcated not only to accept, but to revere those who are the greatest beneficiaries of this inequality.

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In the 1980s, this paradox -- whereby even those most trampled upon come to cheer those responsible for their state -- became more firmly entrenched. That's because it found a folksy, friendly face, Ronald Reagan, adept at feeding the populace a slew of Orwellian cliches that induced them to defend the interests of the wealthiest. "A rising tide," as President Reagan put it, "lifts all boats." The sum of his wisdom being: it is in your interest when the rich get richer.

Implicit in this framework was the claim that inequality was justified and legitimate. The core propagandistic premise was that the rich were rich because they deserved to be. They innovated in industry, invented technologies, discovered cures, created jobs, took risks, and boldly found ways to improve our lives. In other words, they deserved to be enriched. Indeed, it was in our common interest to allow them to fly as high as possible because that would increase their motivation to produce more, bestowing on us ever greater life-improving gifts.

We should not, so the thinking went, begrudge the multimillionaire living behind his 15-foot walls for his success; we should admire him. Corporate bosses deserved not our resentment but our gratitude. It was in our own interest not to demand more in taxes from the wealthiest but less, as their enhanced wealth -- their pocket change -- would trickle down in various ways to all of us. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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