Saturday, May 30, 2015

Glenn Greenwald burns down the government to save Dennis Hastert

Glenn Greenwald has said some radically stupid things over the years, so this is quite an achievement. Writing for the Intercept yesterday, he made possibly the most astonishingly embarrassing argument of his entire career. I'm genuinely surprised. His often terrible politics aside, Glenn is not actually a dumb guy, and clearly has a certain lawyerly savvy about him. But this really is Chuck Johnson level bad.

Glenn's argument is simple: the government should not be able to enforce minimal financial regulation, and the government should not criminalize lying to the FBI. He then goes on to compound this Libertarian imbecility in the most ridiculous way imaginable, but consider first his core position.

An essential tool of any government that wants to exercise democratic sovereignty over financial markets is the right to monitor large transactions. The logic is simple and airtight: the bigger the transaction, the greater its impact on the economy, and thus the greater stake everyone has in what's going on. The conclusion follows directly from the basic premise of democracy; either you believe that people should have some minimal say in decisions that will effect them, or you don't. Accept the premise, and the threshold for transaction-monitoring that you set is just a matter of pragmatic line-drawing and democratic preference.

Perjury laws and the like present an even simpler and starker variation of the same point. If you believe that society could ever have any interest in gathering even the most minimal information from anyone ever, your democratic state has to be able to enforce an expectation of truthful testimony. This is particularly true for the FBI, which investigates the most serious crimes and those of potentially national significance. Again, you can constrain this power however you like, but if you want a democratic government it has to at least exist; either you believe in democracy, or you don't.

Like most Libertarians, Glenn evidently does not.

His complaint, in this article, is that a man is being unfairly prosecuted for 1) trying to evade financial regulations and 2) lying to the FBI. Glenn often veils his position with vague qualifications about over-criminalization: these crimes are just "relatively trivial and harmless acts," he writes (emphasis added). But with an ill-advised rhetorical question, he makes the radical basis of his grievance perfectly clear: "Indeed," he writes of the suspect, "who is the victim of [his] alleged crimes...?"

The answer, of course, is that in this case everyone is the victim. The suspect has defied and weakened our ability, as a democratic society, to have a say in -- or even be aware of -- things that directly affect us. It is odd to have to explain this to an attorney, but if you don't think there were any victims here, then you aren't actually committed to the rule of law in any meaningful sense.

* * *

It isn't all that surprising to see Glenn make this sort of argument -- as a crypto-Libertarian, he does it all the time. But what really elevates his article to an absolutely unprecedented, surreal level of stupidity: the rhetorical hill he's chosen to die on is the beloved prosecution of alleged sex offender and universally reviled garbage-man Dennis Hastert.

You read that correctly. Of all occasions to pick this fight, Glenn wants to bring down the government in order to save grotesque walrus former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. Who allegedly committed a multi-million dollar crime. And then lied to the FBI about it.

I get that we're dealing with the sort of dull reflexive contrarian who's perpetually looking for the newest secret / ironic / counter-intuitive angle that'll make him the smartest guy in the room. That's more or less where Libertarianism comes from, after all; these are the guys who've figured out that it's cool to be selfish, that the best way to help the poor is not to give them money, and that it's totally hip to wear a jacket and bow tie on casual Friday. It's the most Glenn Greenwald thing in the world to see Democrats crow in victory, Republicans shrink in embarrassment, and to instantly brainstorm: what is it about this that everyone else is getting exactly wrong?

What makes this episode so profoundly dumb and gross is that it is not somehow an act of rebellion to defend the old rich white once third-in-line-to-the-Presidency Speaker of the Fucking House. This is not Glenn using the old debate club trick of arguing from the weakest position possible to make his point that much stronger, as if letting Dennis Hastert off the hook proves that we should let everyone off the hook.

This is Glenn Greenwald flying to the defense of a terrible man who will almost certainly escape prosecution in the end, or at least get a reduced sentence, because he is that powerful and that well-connected. As they wrangle over technicalities the defense will almost certainly invoke some version of exactly the argument Glenn is making, insisting that the government is maliciously and recklessly threatening their client with a punishment out of all proportion to whatever crimes he allegedly committed.

Here, the posture of taking a noble principled stand against over-criminalization is unusually perverse. "So many poor minorities are thrown into jail for offenses as petty as disrespecting a police officer or failing to pay a fine on time," Glenn argues; "Can't we at least stop jailing powerful white politicians for massive financial crimes and lying to agents of the federal government?" Even if we were to endorse his radically juvenile objection to basic governance, prioritizing this of all cases is the most blatantly craven moves he could possibly make.

And it's really the brazen shamelessness that's so shocking. I've come to expect Glenn to pick fights against the government that will just-so-happen to benefit the rich and powerful, while coyly ignoring problems that are infinitely bigger for the powerless majority. But usually he's pretty good about choosing battles that upper middle class liberals will feel like they have some minimal stake in, just so that he has a fig leaf to place over his Libertarian agenda. Here, there's no fig leaf. It's just Glenn Greenwald, balls-out hitting the road for Lovecraftian formless squid-beast John "Dennis" Hastert, knowing perfectly well that a legion of ridiculous liberals are gonna go along for the ride.

Correction: the original article incorrectly referred to lying to the FBI as "perjury", and has been corrected accordingly.