Book Review: With Liberty and Justice for Some, Glenn Greenwald (2011)

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

A must read for anyone who professes to care about “democracy.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

If you read just one book in 2012, let Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some be it. (But really, please read more than one book this year. Reading is the best!)

Greenwald – a political columnist for Salon who previously worked as an attorney specializing in constitutional and civil rights issues – shows how, over the past several decades, the legal system has been bent, twisted, abused, and exploited to serve the interests of the privileged few at the expense of the many. Beginning with the Watergate scandal, he traces the evolution (or devolution, as it were) of “elite immunity,” an increasingly accepted principle which holds that some people – and companies – are too large, too important, too powerful to be made to follow the same rules as the rest of us. While this exception initially only applied to those in the highest levels of government, it’s gradually expanded to encompass government officials at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as large corporations and their earthly representatives. Thus, the law – meant to be the great equalizer (of white, cissexual, Christian men … and, eventually all American citizens) – instead works to perpetuate inequities in all realms of life.

In his discussion of elite immunity, Greenwald explores the idea through the use of two recent examples: the so-called “war on terror” (particularly the use of torture) and the financial crisis (including the fraudulent business practices that contributed to it). However, examples of elite immunity can be found far and wide: companies flout environmental regulations, face no criminal penalties for doing so – and, to add insult to injury, taxpayers foot the bill for cleanup. (That is, if the mess is even cleaned up.) Animal ag ignores the paltry animal welfare laws that exist, and are lauded for their “good” (read: profitable) business practices. (All while receiving handouts from the taxpayers in the form of subsidies and complimentary “pest” control programs, such as plans to wipe out wolves who dare dine on cows.) Police officers assault largely nonviolent Occupy protestors, in some cases forcibly holding their eyes open so that they can harm them with pepper spray, and no one but the occasional scapegoat is held accountable. (Of course, police brutality is nothing new; men and women of color, trans* people, sex workers, the homeless, those with mental and physical disabilities – all have been and continue to be targets of police abuse, with little hope of recourse from our legal system.)

Normally this is where I’d include a few excerpts or choice facts – but it’s difficult to quote any one passage, because it’s all compelling. (Insert the rage comic “I’ll highlight all the important parts.” / “IT’S ALL IMPORTANT.” here.) Really, if you’re even the least bit interested in politics, justice, or democracy, With Liberty and Justice for Some is a must read.

My only complaint is that, after working the reader into a frenzy of fury-slash-depression, Greenwald doesn’t so much as hint at a how we might go about fixing this mess. Granted, any solutions are likely to be complicated and multifacted and require more than a chapter (or even a book) to adequately explain, but just a taste of hope and optimism would be nice. Personally, I wish he’d touched upon electoral reform – particularly the public financing of elections – as a start, but I’m also curious as to what he’d suggest. Ah well, next book perhaps?

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)