Dr. Dawg

The Greenwald lens

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The legendary Glenn Greenwald was in Ottawa last night, treating a local audience to a lucid account of unchecked government powers over its citizens—in the US and in Canada. He was introduced, appropriately enough, by Maher Arar, who knows a thing or two about these matters.

Greenwald’s politics, for those unfamiliar with the man and his writings, are libertarian. He is a free speech absolutist who, as a constitutional lawyer, once defended the rights of neo-Nazi riffraff to express their views in the public arena. But, unlike Canada’s clutch of Speech Warriors™, he is in no way selective about his martyrs.

He tells truth to power. And it doesn’t matter whose power it is.

Once he assailed the totalitarian impulses of George W. Bush. Now it’s Barack Obama’s turn, and Greenwald doesn’t hold back. Things, he says, have not improved under Obama—they have gotten steadily worse.

Take, for example, Pvt. Bradley Manning, the alleged whistleblower who provided a large cache of restricted documents to Wikileaks. His mistreatment in prison, amounting to torture, is a matter of public record. Manning’s illustrious predecessor, Daniel Ellsberg, vigorously denounced his treatment, seen by some as sexual sadism. A growing outcry—including from a State Department spokesperson who had to resign for not keeping his mouth shut—forced his transfer to Fort Leavenworth under medium-security conditions, giving the lie to Pentagon excuses that his abuse was for his own safety.

Or take young Tarek Mehenna, now sentenced to 17.5 years in jail for exercising his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Under the renewable and ever-expanding Patriot Act, he was providing “material support” to terrorism, the latter being a term that Greenwald rightly says has no precise definition: it’s hard, he says, to craft one that includes acts of violence by the Other but excludes similar acts on our side. It “means nothing, but it justifies everything.” (Here is Mehenna’s statement at sentencing: perhaps my good friend Connie will take up his cause.)

What Greenwald calls a “self-propelling mindset” is everywhere at work. 9/11 brought to the fore that ever-simmering tension between liberty and safety. Physical safety—an instinctive drive—has won, hands down. But because there is no perfect safety, and because the war against a nebulous “terrorism” has no end, fear and apprehension are relatively easy things to stoke and maintain. And, as Greenwald pointed out, no new government powers have ever in history failed to expand well beyond their original purpose and ambit.

So we observe that in the years since 9/11, which sparked the appropriation of those new powers, while the real threat of terrorism (violence by Muslims against the US and its allies) has receded, those powers continue to grow. Internet surveillance is a current government obsession, while not only terrorist organizations, but all manner of dissenting groups including the Occupy movement, are now heavily infiltrated by agents and informers. American citizens can be detained without trial, and even executed by Presidential order. None of that “due process” nonsense. Don’t we realize there’s a war on?

Obama himself may even believe that he is using his new executive powers precisely and wisely, in a good cause. But his successors could be made of baser material—think Nixon, and be very afraid.

Yet, under Obama, the complex fabric of the US Constitution is being torn. Greenwald cited the Fourth Amendment, meant to protect citizens from unjustified search and seizure. It was a risky thing to do, placing restraints on the powers of the authorities to stop crime and prevent subversion, but the private sphere was thus legitimized and protected, and a balance was struck.

But today there is an on-going rebalancing in favour of government power over individuals. Enhancing that, a national security industry has sprung up. The former Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the dangers of the “military industrial complex” more than half a century ago: today it is firmly in control.

With all of this comes that mind-set Greenwald spoke of. For example, the intense F-35 debate in Canada, as he points out, has so far lacked one fundamental piece: why do we need a costly fleet of fighter jets in the first place? Are we at war? Is our sovereignty threatened? While an austerity budget is foisted upon everyone else, taking money out of the economy during a continuing recession, untold billions of dollars are lavished upon the military. Yet only the how is questioned—never the why.

When ordinary Americans run up personally against the power of the state—in an airport security line-up, for example—the backlash can be ferocious. But they can live so far with extreme measures so long as it’s “those guys” who are coming under the hammer and not themselves.

And so history repeats itself. Even liberals who spoke out against the totalitarian excesses of George W. Bush have fallen silent in the face of the further excesses of Barack Obama. Where they celebrated Ellsberg, who stood up to a Republican president, they excoriate Manning, who allegedly did similar work under a Democratic one. Where they referred to the Bush administration as a toxic and dangerous threat to everything the Founding Fathers stood for, Obama can do no wrong—as both Greenwald and I, experiencing a moment or two of complicity on New Year’s Eve, learned to our cost. Tribal loyalties to “their” president have trumped their own values, values now being crushed underfoot. It’s been a shameful abdication of civic responsibility, for the most partisan of reasons.

But there’s much more to it, as Greenwald noted. Why was Bradley Manning subject to such horrendous illegal, unconstitutional treatment under the public gaze? It seems at first blush to be utterly counter-productive. The chances of obtaining a conviction are compromised; and it prompted a substantial outcry, both domestic and international. But on the other hand, a clear message was sent: Forget all those Constitutional protections you think you have—this could happen to you if you step out of line.

The neutering of the citizenry doesn’t all take place by conscious design, of course. Some of it is self-inflicted. Greenwald mentioned Rosa Luxemburg’s famous comment: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” While some are jailed, broken, kept under strict surveillance, beaten by police when they try to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly and free expression, most people are left alone. They imagine themselves to be free, but they’re not moving in Luxemburg’s sense, and not necessarily because they are consciously afraid of being arrested and abused. They’d simply prefer to do other things than exercise their Constitutional rights, not even aware of the lessons they’ve learned through the pores.

Government, meanwhile, operates behind ever-thicker curtains of secrecy as the extreme powers of the Patriot Act, now normalized, are continually reaffirmed and expanded by Congress and Executive decision. But the ordinary citizen, on the other hand, lives in the ultimate panopticon: under the unrelenting gaze of the state, he or she is pressured to conform as never before. The private sphere, in which people can try out new thoughts, express nonconformity, be creative and unconventional, is shrinking away.

What is to be done? On that subject, Greenwald was vague, wisely I think, although he was prodded by a young member of the audience. His comments on the Occupy movement made a lot of sense: popular discontent, he said, needs to build before specific plans get made. We have no way of knowing at this stage what an alternative world would look like.

Whistleblowing, harshly punished by the Obama administration, is another important countervailing force to government power, he believes. The light of publicity can only be liberating.

Discussions in an auditorium such as the one we were sharing last night are safe for everyone, he noted. We have no reasonable fear of arrest. But Greenwald emphasized that you can’t successfully counter primordial fears about physical security with abstract discourses about rights.

Somehow risks must be run if change is to take place. It’s all uncharted territory, of course, inhabited by sleepwalkers and armed guards. “Civil liberties don’t matter if you’re dead,” said one right-winger he quoted. That, in a nutshell, is what we’re up against.

Meanwhile the rough beast continues to slouch ever onward, seemingly unstoppable, and mesmerized ordinary citizens go about their daily business, thinking it can’t happen here—when it already has.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on April 13, 2012 4:20 PM.

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