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Author Thu Aug 02 2012
Glenn Greenwald is a political and legal columnist, blogger, and former Constitutional and civil rights litigator. He has written several books (including his newest book, With Liberty and Justice for Some), won an Online Journalism Award in 2010 for Best Commentary for his coverage of the arrest of Bradley Manning, and regularly contributes to Salon. I talked to him after his speech at the Socialism 2012 Conference, "Challenging the US Surveillance State," and we discussed his book, government monitoring in everyday life, living part-time in a foreign country, and his thoughts on Chicago's mayor.
Your speech was about what you call "The Surveillance State" - could you sum that up and give a few examples?
Yeah, it's just basically the conglomeration of government agencies and corporations which are in the business of gathering and collecting information about citizens, and what they say and what they do. And it can be anything from programs to eavesdrop on people's telephone conversations to storing their email communications to information about with whom they're communicating or [where] they're spending their money, where they go, those kinds of things.
You made an interesting point about how groups of people will act differently if they believe they are being monitored. Could you talk about the Los Angeles bus and Muslim community examples you cited?
You know, Los Angeles County wanted to address the problem of what they thought was excessively rambunctious behavior on the part of elementary school children on their buses. So the solution was to install cameras in every bus. And when they were asked how that could possibly be managed in terms of resources - because there's so many buses, how could you have working video cameras in each, and enough to store it, and where would it be stored - their answer was you don't need to have working cameras. Just the mere presence of cameras - even if they're not working - will change behavior. Because it will make people feel as though they are being watched, they won't know which cameras are really real, and that will deter and chill the kinds of behavior that they want to prevent. Because just the possibility of being watched prevents people from - it sort of breeds this conformity that authorities like to breed.
And the other part of it was...what'd you ask?
About the monitoring of the various Muslim-American groups across America?
One of the things that the FBI has been doing has been infiltrating Muslim communities by putting undercover agents in, by putting in people who are informants. So every time people in Muslim communities meet someone new who appears at a mosque or in any other social setting, they automatically have this extreme suspicion the person is really there working for the government or being an informant for the government. Muslim communities are targeted with all kinds of surveillance, much more so than any other group. And so it's given rise to this extreme level of suspicion. People don't want to talk to new people. When they do talk to even people they know, they're extremely cautious about the kinds of things they're willing to say or the topics they're willing to broach. And its just put people in this extreme position of fear that's really limited what they're willing to do.
And are you afraid that fear is going to spread to other segments of society?
Well, I think it already has. I mean, I think a lot of people feel like they're being watched in lots of ways. It's intensified in the Muslim community. But these kinds of things invariably spread beyond their original venue. You see it with all kinds of social movements that aren't Muslim or predominately Muslim. Like the Occupy movement was infiltrated in all kinds of ways and monitored in all kinds of ways. So I think any form of social activism is vulnerable to that.
You're on tour for your book, could you give a brief synopsis of it?
It examines the two-tier justice system in the United States. Basically, the way that political and financial elites have become immunized from any sort of legal consequences for even the most egregious crimes like torture, warrantless eavesdropping, the massive financial fraud that precipitated the 2008 crisis, at the very same time that one of the most oppressive justice systems in the world has been created for ordinary Americans, where even trivial offensives are met with very oppressive punishment...more excessive than anywhere else in the Western world. So there's this sort of mirror image in the justice system based on who you are, which is kind of the opposite of what the justice system is supposed to be.
Do you still live part-time in Rio?
Yeah, I do.
Are you familiar with a lot of the history behind Brazil and the [former] dictatorship?
Yeah. I mean, I'm not an expert in Brazilian history or politics, but I have a good working understanding of the roots and political history.
I was just curious if that informed any of your viewpoints of what's happening in the United States by living there?
I mean, I think living in a foreign country opens your eyes and changes your perspective in a lot of different ways. I can't specifically say that the military dictatorship aspect has.
But, you know, Brazilians are extremely optimistic about their future. Very positive about their political class. I remember one of the things that sort of dawned on me one day suddenly after I had lived there for a year was that there was, like, never any moment when Brazilians or Brazilian media or political outlets start talking about what wars they want to fight or which countries they want to attack next. And I just remember thinking that how weird it was and aberrational that the United States never is debating should they go to war but what the next war should be.
So things like that kind of affect how you view the United States' political culture - you see things from being outside of it that you don't necessarily see when you're immersed in it.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers or bloggers who'd like to follow in your footsteps, given the current media climate?
Yeah, I think the important thing to begin by realizing is that there's millions of blogs and people writing online. So the critical thing is not try and copy what anyone else is doing, but to figure out how you can contribute something unique, which means making yourself an expert in one or two topics, rather than trying to just be a general pundit. And then being a person who's a really good resource on those one or two or three issues. And then once you do that, figure out how to make the outside world aware that you are now producing content that's worthwhile. Like emailing people who would be interested, leaving comments in different places that link to what you've written.
So it's sort of a two-fold approach: one is you have to figure out how you're going to offer something unique that's not being offered anywhere else, so that people have a reason to read what you're doing instead of what a million other people are doing. And then, once you do that, you have to figure out how you're going to make people aware that you've made something unique and of value. And that just means being creative in terms of marketing yourself and making people alert to what you've done.
But I think the most important thing is to figure out your own- where you fit in in terms of the conversation, and why you entering the conversation is something that matters.
Any thoughts about Rahm Emanuel?
I mean, yeah, I think Rahm Emanuel is sort of the symbol of everything wrong with Democratic Party politics. (laughs) All wrapped into one horrible person.
How he's done as mayor of Chicago, I don't really know. I haven't paid much attention to it, to be honest.*
*Since this interview was conducted, he has written a post on Salon criticizing the mayor over his stance on the Chik-Fil-A ban controversy.