Posts Tagged ‘Glenn Greenwald’

The future is unwritten.

September 2, 2009

Should we measure a president by his cultural impact, or by his political decisions? Judging by the country’s reaction to Obama, we’ve decided on the former. The Right’s pseudo-populist assault on “Obamanomics,” despite some lone voices of principle, reeks of desperation. The New York Times’ current nonfiction Top Ten bestseller list includes no fewer than four right-wing attacks on Obama, but there’s something second-hand and shoddy about the bile-slinging — as with Reagan, most of the attacks bounce off the president’s smile. The crazy conviction with which the Right attacked Clinton (a conviction made all the crazier by Clinton’s gradual swerve to the right himself) isn’t here. If Obama weren’t trying to steerhead a change in the country’s health care policy even he admits is radical, these books would plummet to earth unread.

The Left, meanwhile, attacks Obama from the left — and the rest of the country meanders somewhere in the middle, still unwilling to feel too cynical toward the man. The magic of the election and the inauguration hasn’t quite lifted — above all, perhaps, of that night when Obama began: “It’s been a long time coming … but change has come to America.” Even those who didn’t recognize the allusion to Sam Cooke’s great 1964 single “A Change is Gonna Come” — a sermon of sorts that seems bolder and louder and more wrenching and joyful every time you hear it, so firm and unyielding that you can’t believe segregation lasted a second longer than its release date — felt the chill and grace of that moment. The much-lampooned word “change” itself, so empty and meaningless in political speeches for years, at last meant what it said. Every syllable hammered a nail into the coffin of the distant evil of the American past, the evil that still made its presence known when anonymous McCain supporters barked out “He’s an Arab!” (“Arab,” here, stood in for a term that no Obama-hater would have dared say in public.)

Already that moment seems strange and far away. Obama has proved himself every bit the “pragmatist” he campaigned as. Already it’s easy to be reminded of the hints — his tacit alliance with Boss Daley, his praise for Truman’s “sensible” foreign policy. We never should have expected Obama to be Russ Feingold — if we did, we allowed ourselves to be taken over by the wondrousness of the moment. I did that myself. The Obama who confessed that Malcolm X’s autobiography spoke more deeply to him than any other book and the Obama who complained about the “smallness of our politics” are the same person as the man who looks to each side during his speeches and then, slyly, indicates that he isn’t really in the club with either of those crazy extremes, even though he perfectly understands where they’re coming from, because after all, America is… And on, and on, and on, and on.

But if Obama is (probably) a deeply safe sort of politician, the response to him isn’t safe or predictable at all. He’s sent surges of political hope through the populace of a sort that haven’t been felt in a long time — not since the progressive era, perhaps. He’s ended a political regime whose daily message, delivered with cold relentlessness, was that some people didn’t belong in the country. That is not nothing.

Ever since the inauguration, with the painstaking scrutiny and unforgiving relentlessness of Tom Paine (who blasted George Washington himself as a tyrant), Glenn Greenwald has tracked Obama’s political achievements and betrayals with the assumption that none of this matters, that a president (like any politician) should be judged by his deeds alone. Reading him, I sometimes feel my skepticism slumping, something in me rebelling against this assumption. Surely this isn’t all Obama is, I’ll think — surely his good qualities add up to more than a prudent stance on Iran, a couple of good speeches here and there. But how does one measure a gut feeling? Does it have any real-world relevance at all?

Writing in Dissent, Charles Taylor damned Obama’s critics for failing to see the mystic aspect of the president, the side that no political critique could possibly touch:

Just like those rock fans who approach music as if they were English majors, looking for the significance in lyrics, there are disappointed and cynical white pundits who believe Obama, like any other president, should be judged by his decisions alone. … Do Greenwald, Sirota, et al, grasp that those who believe Obama stands for something beyond the sum of his decisions are not all blind Democratic loyalists or starry-eyed disciples? Judging politics by listing each action on a balance sheet to see how it adheres to the catechism, much of the left seems unable to comprehend the visionary aspect of politics. The vision that emerges from their journalism is the clichéd and puny view that politicians are finally members of the establishment representing the same small and powerful set of vested interests.

This is an extremely seductive view — the view that critics are always missing something, some intangible thing that can’t be reached through regular channels, but only through the subjective lens of culture, of sex and race and everything and anything but politics. (Taylor, by the way, is the former movie critic for Salon who declared that anyone who couldn’t see the genius of Brian DePalma’s flop “Mission to Mars” was only parading his ignorance of the cinema.) It’s seductive and it’s dangerous, because it means suspending our disbelief to the point of childishness. If politics means the use of power, then “the visionary aspect of politics” is nothing more than boilerplate, apologist hooey. Rereading this passage, I’m inclined to think it is.

And yet.

I’d be lying if I said I was sure what Obama would look like three years from now. If he fails to pass health-care reform, the fallout throughout the country — the fury and despondency — would be shattering. If foreign crises come upon him unbidden, that could change the entire game — as it did for so many other presidents before him. So I won’t pretend I have any settled impression of him or an opinion that couldn’t change in a week. For the first time in decades, politics doesn’t seem hopeless — and that is not nothing.

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The myth of the money power.

March 21, 2009

Glenn Greenwald is beyond doubt one of the most thoughtful and independent political thinkers around today. I say that with just the slightest twinge of uncertainty, because I’m not entirely sure what Greenwald’s politics are. Judging from things he’s written about himself here and there, he was a fairly apolitical type — thought we were being well taken care of by our “checks and balances” system, just like they teach you in Social Studies — until the authoritarian pretensions of the Bush Administration shocked him into the realization that the Constitution is not a self-running, self-perpetuating machine — that all popular government will deteriorate if left to our rulers alone. To my knowledge, he’s yet to explain exactly what his view of government is, what it should be doing and what it ought not to interfere with. But our greatest political thinker, Jefferson, never wrote a systematic treatise on politics either. Greenwald’s running commentary on the misdeeds of our rulers is better political thought than 95 percent of the drivel being pumped out at any Washington think-tank. He’s our most indispensable blogger, the only one I’m aware of who might merit a comparison with I. F. Stone.

So it’s distressing to see Greenwald choke on the oldest and most self-destructive leftist myth about politics in his latest entry. Behold:

Matt Taibbi’s new Rolling Stone article perfectly summarizes what the AIG scandal reveals about our political and economic system, and should be read in full. In sum: financial elites own the Government and both political parties. Their money drowns Washington and their lobbyists control it. They used that ownership of Government to abolish decades-old legal and regulatory protections which previously constrained what they could do. In the lawless environment which they literally purchased from our political leaders, they were able to pillage and pilfer and steal without limit. And even now that everything has come crashing down, they continue to dictate what the Government’s response is, to ensure that they — the prime authors of the disaster — are the prime beneficiaries, at the public’s expense, of the “solutions,” solutions which preserve their ill-gotten gains and heighten even further their power and influence.

What I object to here isn’t the content so much as the way it’s framed. It’s incredible to believe that Greenwald, our most penetrating observer of the deviousness and Machiavellian ambitions of the political ruling class, actually believes that our political leaders let “financial elites” tell them what to do. We suffered eight years under a president who thought the Constitution a “piece of paper” to be rewritten at will, a vice president who thought the president had the right to refuse to carry out Congressional laws he disapproved of, and an Administration eager to seize upon any pretext to trash American liberties. We heard nothing but snivelling excuses and evasions from the oppositional party — which, for most of Bush’s term in office, held the support of half or more of the voters — about why they refused to oppose any of this, why they cracked down on any upstart Democrat who dared speak out against any of it. Even in the last election, when a majority of Americans would have been happy to see Bush hauled up in front of their county judge and sentenced to 60 years of janitorial work, Democrats insisted that all Americans cared about was “the economy.” They hastened, in fact, to criticize Wall Street and big business in general. Why would they do that, were they beholden only to Wall Street and big business?

Greenwald knows all this — he hammers it harder, in fact, than any blogger I know of — which is why I find it so hard to believe that he could even entertain the notion that allegiance to big business, of all things, made them do this. Why would a Wall Street broker be eager to see the power of the presidency expanded, or see American troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, or see the Democrats lose elections? Do “financial elites” often favor undemocratic policies? Certainly. But it’s a major leap from that to assuming that financial elites run the country. (Yes, I’m aware that most politicians are rich. But most celebrities are rich too, and we don’t assume that Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson have any sway over our politics.) Why do we not assume that politicians, who actually wield real power, have their own reasons for wanting to maintain that power?

In truth, there is no evidence whatever that the major tenet of leftist thinking — that corporations and corporate bosses run our political system — is true. It amounts to nothing but an extended apology for our political class. Rather than a powerful oligarchy, eager to swindle us out of our democracy, they appear as nothing but well-meaning schmucks who would help us if only they weren’t so frightened of those CEOs. The notion of Washington as a city cowering under the vicious gaze of lobbyists is a pathetic one, but that doesn’t stop foolish leftists from assuming that clamping down on lobbyists would result in a virtuous Washington.

The great Walter Karp, in Indispensable Enemies (the one and only indispensable book ever written about American politics), disposed of this hoary myth beyond any reasonable doubt, and I can’t hope to do justice to his remarkably persuasive argument in a few words. In brief, Karp’s thesis is that there’s no need to resort to hidden forces or conspiracy theories to explain why we are so badly misgoverned. If we assume that we are misgoverned because our political leaders — the bosses of the Republican and Democratic parties — want to misgovern us in order to secure and sustain their own power. It is the very nature of republican government, Karp argues, that forces them to do this. In an authoritarian state, the leaders would largely be free to ignore the discontented unless a revolt broke out; here, the parties’ monopoly control over politics is constantly threatened by the very freeness of our politics, founded on the Constitution and the federal principle. This is why the extension of democracy — contra the Menckenian objections of our libertarian friends — is always and forever a threat to undemocratic government, and the only real solution to it.

If you buy this — and I admit that it seems difficult to swallow at first, considering how schmucky our leaders look and sound on C-SPAN — it becomes increasingly hard to feel safe, to retreat to banalities about “pluralism” and such. Our wrecked economy, dominated by corporations, becomes easier to explain: What better way to prop up corrupt power than to give the moneyed class a stake in it? (Alexander Hamilton, no fool, understood this and believed that it ought to be written into the Constitution.) Karp writes:

It is obvious … that those who wield party power, or would consolidate party power, have compelling political reasons of their own to foster monopoly and no political reason of their own to sustain an economy of small competing producers. We should expect to find in the history of monopoly capitalism the oligarchs’ determined effort to engender monopoly and destroy competition-and that is what we do find. We should expect to find that effort strenuously opposed by the great majority of Americans-and that too we find. What we will not find is what conventional history tells us to look for, namely the “triumph of laissez-faire,” for the history of the formation of monopoly capitalism is history of deliberate government intervention to further monopoly. … what the majority of Americans once clearly understood (is) that behind every monopoly stands the government and, by extension, the party bosses. The notion that the monopoly system developed through autonomous economic processes is an ideological myth.

The list goes on. Our frighteningly arbitrary foreign adventures begin to make sense: Why is it that every major war happened at a time of tremendous domestic turmoil, when the parties’ power over the populace was threatened? Why were party leaders so eager to encourage a centralized school system, with an ever more ferociously dictated curriculum? Why are our tax dollars forever funneled into maintaining a vastly overblown standing army — the very thing the Founders most dreaded and warned against, as the ultimate pretext for governmental abuse — instead of being used to fix that same miserable school system? Finally, why is it that the press is so eager to blame everyone in the world for our troubles — bankers, the rich, the poor, even the press itself — but politicians themselves? Could it be that this is really the most unlikely taboo of them all — to hold those in power responsible for what happens on their watch?