Justice by David Atkins

by David Atkins

It is increasingly clear that the Occupy movement has tapped into a wellspring of pre-existing public sentiment that has been lying under the surface for a while now. What that sentiment is exactly has been the subject of some debate: is it anger about inequality? Fury over the plight of the less fortunate during the recession? Concern about powerlessless in a global economy? Frustration with an ineffective political system? The precise desires not just of the Occupiers themselves but of the broader public that supports them have been up for some debate as well.

Ultimately, though, you have a pretty decent sense of the zeitgeist when Matt Taibbi and Thomas Friedman start sounding a lot alike.

Taibbi and Friedman, normally at near opposite ends of the spectrum both in style and ideology, are both hitting on a shared fundamental theme: justice.

The mere fact that some people have more money than they could ever spend while the majority suffers, or that Washington is unable to step in to solve basic problems, or that America has a regrettable foreign policy, or any of the other oft-repeated reasons for deep-seated public anger really don't get to the heart of the matter. Those issues have been present for quite some time now; progressives have been talking about them for years and years without too much traction.

But people have a much more emotional and almost animal reaction to the notion of justice. People can tell when they're getting a raw deal. Game theory experiments have proven that people are willing to sacrifice personal gain just to enforce a sense of justice when the other player is perceived to be taking advantage of them. It is this same emotional dynamic that is leading people to camp out in the cold at Occupy sites all across America.

What Friedman and Taibbi are both pointing to is the fact that none of the people who were involved in major financial crimes have gotten more than a slap on the wrist. These people got bailed out of their untenable positions and continue to play with a stacked deck while preaching austerity to the rest of us. That sort of thing rankles people's innate sense of justice.

For progressives concerned with more than just economic justice, this sense of lack of justice extends to the people who lied America into the invasion of Iraq, the people responsible for the BP disaster in the Gulf, the people responsible for outing CIA agents for political gain, the people involved in the Abramoff criminal conspiracy, the Department of Justice firings, and a host of other fusions of corporate and government criminality.

One doesn't always have to be able to express coherently why or how one is getting screwed to know one is getting screwed. People get that the social order has broken down to the point that accountability is only for the little people anymore. Tea Partiers understand this, though they blame entirely the wrong people, and their Objectivist authoritarian mindset means that they are incapable of being any kind of assistance in solving the problems that got us here. But they do have a legitimate sense that society is out of kilter, and that accountability for elites is a thing of the past. Protesters in the Occupy movement also understand that justice is not being done, even if each person has their own sense of exactly what those injustices look like.

Greenwald's new book postulates that this sense of lawlessness lack of accountability dates back to Nixon's pardon. I'm not sure I buy that thesis exactly, but it's hard to argue with the notion that something has gone askew with the way we address not just inequality in America, but accountability.

Gnawing, unresolved injustice eats away at societies. Ritual cleansings have been part of human organizations for millennia to resolve just this very issue. When major injustices have been committed, the public will continue to be agitated until they see some sort of resolution that involves accountability for those involved. Politically, that has taken the form of consecutive wave elections that make no rational sense politically, but do make sense emotionally.

People are only going to get more and more angry until they start to see some justice. Remarkably, though, our elites don't even seem to get the idea that there were even misdeeds that require any accountability. That's a recipe for increased acrimony and conflict. If bipartisan fetishists and various pearl clutchers want more public unity and less fractious political discourse, they should start looking into how to satisfy the public's yearning to see justice done to those who continue profit at their expense.