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Glenn Greenwald on Civil Liberties, Executive Power, and The Rule of Law

March 12, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky


I saw Glenn Greenwald give a talk at Yale Law School last week. I won’t go on about it too much, but only to point out a question I asked him. When it comes to public outrage at the powers being exercised by The Executive Branch, his response actually gave me a lot of hope. His emphasis on the power of ideas was particularly inspiring.

My question is at around 40:30- I remarked that, aside from writers like him and Conor Friedersdorf, the media had been giving Obama a big “pass” when it comes to violations of civil liberties, and so I wanted to hear his take on that. I also asked him what do we do next? Articles and events at Ivy League schools are great, but what can we do to reverse the paradigm of the people fearing their government back to its rightful place where the state fears those which it governs?

Here is the video:

One thing I found very compelling was Glenn’s point that the “Rule of Law” as we understand it, is an extremely important set of principles for our society to uphold, EVEN IF those principles have been violated many times over the course of our history. In short, the failure of men to adhere to a principle does not invalidate the principle in itself.

If you unpack that argument and apply it in other circumstances, it can be easily applied to a variety of situations. For example, I’m sure most readers will say that “honesty” is a valuable principle to uphold, affirm, and preach to others. But I’m also sure that every single one of those readers has told a lie at least once in his or her lifetime. Does that suddenly mean that we should stop affirming the values of honesty in both public and private discourse? Does this mean that lying suddenly becomes morally validated?


I didn’t think so.

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