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Chris Hedges and Robert Scheer discuss the Founding Fathers, FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the persecution of Chelsea Manning in this sweeping conversation.

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CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Welcome back. I’m Chris Hedges. This is The Real News. This is part five of my conversation with Robert Scheer, the author of They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy. I love the book. It’s brilliant. You’re a great writer. And it’s an important book. I wouldn’t say they are destroying democracy; I would say they have destroyed democracy. You have held up throughout this conversation the founding fathers. And I want to go back to Thomas Paine, who was the real radical, who called for–he didn’t use the word socialism, but a type of socialism, who was an abolitionist, who was a proponent of direct democracy, which the founding fathers were not, who opposed the genocidal campaigns against Native Americans, which all of the founding fathers embraced with relish, who wanted rights for women. And I think Zinn points out that all of these freedoms that you talk about were reserved for a very small, select group of largely slave-holding white males, our aristocratic class, who replaced the aristocratic class of Britain, and that it was–Washington, by the time he was president, was the wealthiest person in the United States, largely by seizing Indian lands with land speculators and selling it for profit–of course, he himself was a large slaveholder–And that through the constitutional conventions that were held after independence, you really saw a rolling back of that populism and radicalism that Paine, who himself became a pariah, spoke so eloquently about, and of course Common Sense and his journalism were used to fuel–most of the people fighting the revolution were yeoman farmers. So they created mechanisms by which we would never have a voice–the Senate, the Electoral College. That’s how you had Al Gore win 500,000 more votes than Bush and Bush still wins or Nader did not lose the election. Everything was built into the system to create a kind of protection of rights for a very select few. And we saw throughout American history–and Zinn does this in his book–the struggle by labor, by women, by African-Americans, the Communist Party. We have erased the importance of the Communist Party in this country all through the ’20s and ’30s. These radical movements that opened up that space in American democracy, all of those movements have been shut down in the name of anticommunism, starting with Wilson but running right through, past McCarthy. Labor is a spent force. You talk about labor, where you have less than 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized. Only 6 percent of the labor force in the private sector is unionized. We have created an oligarchic state, a form of neo-feudalism. You have half this country living in poverty or near poverty. We have a looming climate crisis, especially since we are not–and Barack Obama drills like Sarah Palin–we are not able to stop the ravaging of the planet, whether it’s the tar sands or dropping drill bits up into the summer Arctic sea ice by Shell Oil, profiting off the death throes of the planet. These people are barreling forward in terms of the impoverishment of the working class, the destruction of the environment. And they have created mechanisms–they certainly are prepared for unrest. They have run scenario after scenario after scenario, and they have created mechanisms–militarized police, drones, security and surveillance–an evisceration–Obama’s assault on civil liberties is worse then, as I said before, anything Bush has done. They’re ready to go. They know something’s coming, and they’re totally prepared. And I don’t see in that mechanism that they have put into place–and what they have done in terms of creating both a legal, a judicial, and a security system that is so powerful, so pervasive, and, as you said, far beyond anything the Stasi ever dreamt of–I don’t see how at that point appealing or believing that the system is reformable is anything but futile. PROF. ROBERT SCHEER, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Wow. So let’s go have a drink. HEDGES: Well, I want to resist. But it’s how you resist. SCHEER: Yeah, I understand that. HEDGES: And you resist through acts of civil disobedience, by shutting the system down. SCHEER: You know, I have no truly coherent, rational way of countering what you just said. All I have is biography. You know. And as–and here I do feel, as a journalist, you know, what have I seen, just as what have you seen. And this period is not, to me, darker than, say, the period I grew up in. I mean, I was–if we can get little personal here, I was born in 1936. My father lost his job. My father was a German Protestant from–you know, heavy accent. And my mother, who was Jewish, did not have papers, because my mother was a refugee from communism, amazingly enough. Her movement, the Jewish Socialist Bund, had been crushed by Lenin, and like many of the immigrants who came to this country, she had a checkered political past. And lawyers–and then she got involved in labor strikes–the first months she was here, was arrested some ten times in the first half-year, and lawyers told her, don’t apply for citizenship, because they’ll deport you. And so I was kind of–and they weren’t even married legally. And they even misspelled my name on my birth certificate at Bronx hospital. So I can’t say–I came into this world and this country with uncertainty all around. And, you know, what do you do? What is your [incompr.] And my parents were very poor and living in the Bronx, and my father had another family he had to support, etc., etc. So I, you know, looked around. But yet there was a tradition and an excitement about social issues, in part because a guy who could be seen as a ruling-class reformer, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, however gave hope. Okay? And now I can reread Roosevelt and I can go back and study Roosevelt. I could talk about Roosevelt’s failing, turning back people trying to enter this country who were escaping fascism. I could talk about the failure to enter the war against fascism [incompr.] I could give the same lecture you gave just opening this thing. You know, why did it take so long to open the second front in the war? And why did we treat the Germans, Americans living in this country different than the Japanese Americans? All of my German relatives, none of them were rounded up, and the Japanese were. My half-brother bombed our hometown in Germany. He was in the Air Force. No one challenged his [incompr.] And then I remember as a kid, you know, my–I had–a guy named Carl Juergens [spl?] was one of my closest friends. He couldn’t play baseball, but he was the best baseball player. You know, I remember being taken by one of my lefty–my uncle, Edward, to picket Ebbets Field so they would hire Negroes. You know. I remember McCarthyism coming in. And I was delivering milk then, when I was 12 and half years old, and people were throwing out books in the garbage cans and trying to get rid of them. Well, one of the sets they threw out was the collected works of Jefferson, you know, because in that crazy McCarthy period, not only Tom Paine, who–after all, his body was dug up at another period and his bones scattered through the landscape–. And by the way, just let me reinforce what you said. I don’t think we would have had a bill of rights were it not for Tom Paine and other people like that. We wouldn’t have had limited government and the checks and balances and separation of powers built into the Constitution the way they were were there not a great deal of suspicion of the elites, the guys with the wigs and everything else who were making this law. So to get a nation built, to get a Constitution–and Charles and Mary Beard and other scholars of that whole period have brilliantly outlined, you know, this was forced upon them. The reason the Fourth Amendment is there: it was forced upon these people in government. However, however you get this thing–and this goes for societies that claim to be built on socialism. You know. After all, this is what dissidents in any society–Christian dissidents, you know, Muslim dissidents who say, no, you’ll be trained in the Quran–they look for the parts of the tradition that give them clarity and moral support. You know, in my own teaching on ethics, I rely heavily–and you have much better training than I do–but I rely on the Good Samaritan. I think that is a testament to why we have to care about poor people. You know, I now rely on the Pope’s writings about poverty and so forth. So we find our inspiration wherever we can. And I certainly would not give a blank check to the founders. But I would say there is something in that tradition that is invaluable. Invaluable. And the notion of distrust of government, distrust of the powerful–. HEDGES: The division of power. That’s key. SCHEER: Yeah. But the idea that it has to be checked, and the belief that ordinary people are capable of understanding their circumstance–. And I agree with you. The definition of ordinary people was limited. But, you know, after all, Tom Paine, who was a recent immigrant and who was a corset maker and a worker and so forth, he was in that ordinary definition. People did listen to him. They read his pamphlets. We had a penny press. We had wall posters. We had dissent from the very beginning. And that dissent demanded to be heard. And the only way they could weave this nation together was not just by going to the elite, because the elite was fragmented. After all, much of the elite in this country supported the Brits. They supported the king. You know. Washington was an exception in that respect, and Madison and Hamilton. You know, there was a very significant group of people that didn’t want to challenge the king or who were indifferent, another third or maybe a third were really the revolutionaries. HEDGES: Well, the reason Paine rose is because the entire government in Philadelphia remained loyal to the crown. SCHEER: Exactly. HEDGES: And so they had to work with–Paine made them very uncomfortable. SCHEER: Yes. Exactly. HEDGES: But they had no choice. SCHEER: And Paine was not alone. There was Sam Adams. There were others. So I understand that. What I don’t want to lose here is, however this Constitution got written and however it’s been interpreted, it has within it, particularly the issue we’re here to discuss today, this Fourth Amendment and the First Amendment and the protection against self-incrimination and all of those other things, those ideas, just like some ideas you will find in Marx’s writings or you’ll find in Confucius or Aristotle’s writings, for all of the contradiction, right, all the contradictions, when you find those ideas, you want to hold on to them and you want to raise them, you want to address them. You know? And that idea of limited government, that idea that we have these basic rights that no one can take away, I found as a kid to be the source of my own energy. Otherwise I would have given up. You know. I mean, I can tell you–just let me say one little personal thing. I worked in the post office to go through college. Okay? Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs, his father worked in the post office, okay? He came out of that experience and said, I’m going to be as rich as anybody can be, ’cause I don’t want to end up in the post office. Alright? I had the opposite experience. I felt the people working with me in the post office, many who were vets from World War II, Korean War, and so on, I felt, you know, these people are as smart as anyone I ever meet in the university or anywhere else. They’re being deceived. They’re being lied to. They’re not being given the information. If we can give them the information, if we can raise these issues, if we can invoke the best parts of our tradition, then we got a shot, okay, and we can reverse some of these laws. You know, we had Taft-Hartley come in that destroyed the unions. HEDGES: Right, 1948. SCHEER: We had McCarthyism come in. And we had to fight back. You know. And you’re absolutely right. You know, it was–you know, this is what Martin Luther King referred to. You know, why did the FBI go after Martin Luther King? What was Hoover’s excuse? Hoover’s excuse is that he had two close associates who were former communists. HEDGES: Rustin. SCHEER: Huh? No, not just Bayard Rustin. He had–I’m blocking on their names, but there were one black and one white Jewish. HEDGES: Oh, the lawyer, Leventhal– SCHEER: Levin, and I’m forgetting the other person. HEDGES: Oh, Lowenstein. Lowenstein. SCHEER: Yeah. And Hoover went after King because King wouldn’t kick those people out. He wouldn’t kick out Bayard Rustin also. And he used redbaiting against–Hoover. HEDGES: Right. But I would argue that at that point, however flawed the system was–and we both understand it was deeply flawed–the Constitution was a living document. At this point–I mean, Stalin had one of the most enlightened constitutions ever written. And so all of these things remain true on paper, but they’re not a judicial reality. I mean, we now live in a country where the military–and this is another direct violation of the Constitution–can come in and carry out extraordinary rendition on the streets of American cities against American citizens deemed to be terrorists by the government, held in military facilities, and stripped of due process. I mean, that’s just one of many examples. So, over and over and over we have seen, largely through the courts, a reinterpretation, a radical reinterpretation of our most basic constitutional rights, to essentially nullify those rights. SCHEER: Okay. Let’s understand something. And I’m saying this not because I want to flatter you. First of all, I know it’s not possible–you don’t fall for that. But seriously, I am your editor at Truthdig, and I have said publicly and I’ll say it now: I think you’re the most important journalist we have in the world, okay–that I know of. I’m sure there are others that are more important. I just don’t know them. Okay? I don’t read their language or I don’t follow them. The reason I say that is because you are, let’s say it, the scold, the uncompromising person who has called the university to task. You did it when you gave that speech at a commencement. You called The New York Times to task when you wouldn’t accept their terms for going along. And you haven’t even pointed out the biggest problem we have in this society, which is not the Cheneys, it’s not the, really, proto-fascists that we have out there; it’s the good Germans, it’s the people who have gone along, it’s The New York Times when they allowed Wen Ho Lee–not only allowed; encouraged Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos, to be held in solitary confinement and humiliated, with lights on 24-7, on totally trumped-up charges. You know, it’s when we’re treating our whistleblowers, when this president has gone after whistleblowers with an intensity that exceeds that of all previous presidents. HEDGES: Or Chelsea Manning exposes clear war crimes, and the only person who’s prosecuted is not those helicopter pilots who violated, I think, three or four–. SCHEER: Okay. So I think your–you’ve talked about my being–making a real contribution. Your unique contribution is to call out the enablers of a move towards fascism. And without them, there cannot be– HEDGES: That’s right. SCHEER: There cannot be. What happened in Germany was that the good Germans went along. That–we know that. That’s really what Hannah Arendt–that’s what is meant by the banality of evil, okay, that people went along because their careerism trumped their integrity, because their fear trumped it. And that of course is what the surveillance state is expecting and has expected. And the betrayal of a Nancy Pelosi, you know, as Bill Binney pointed out, the reason Nancy Pelosi could not go for impeaching George W. Bush is he called in the two top leaders of the House and the Senate and had them made–made them complicit. He did with the Mafia did. You know. And there’s a famous quote from the head of Citicorp when Bill Clinton gave them the reversal of Glass-Steagall. He said he called up the president and told him what really was going on, and he said, to turn to his partner, he said, we made the president complicit in this deal. So there’s no question that you have caught the real illness of our society, which is the complicity of well-intentioned, well-spoken, well-educated people going along with absolute madness. The people at The New York Times or elsewhere who told us, oh, we buy this weapons of mass distraction, and we’re going to go invade Iraq, a government, or Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with 9/11. They went along. And then, when you don’t find the weapons, they still go along with the war and they still go along with the lies. And then, yes, let’s talk about Chelsea Manning. Here is a person who–what was the great crime? To show us that civilians were killed in Iraq, and including shooting at Reuters reporters, and that the government was not going to tell us, and instead of that person being of awarded with a Nobel Prize, sitting in jail for this very lengthy term. Yes. But where we disagree, where we disagree is that I feel inspired by the–. What’s the right word? I want to say non-sellout, but that’s too meek. By the wonderful moments of our history, by the saving grace of a Daniel Ellsberg or Chelsea Manning and so forth. And what are they doing? They’re doing the same thing that dissidents did in the Soviet Union. The dissidents in the Soviet Union were really appealing, originally, to the promise of socialism that was betrayed. After all, the promise of socialism was not to implement a system more coercive than what the tsar had, right? HEDGES: Right. SCHEER: Okay? So that’s what a dissident does in Cuba. You know? It’s to appeal to what was supposed to be the promise of the Cuban Revolution. The first people that Fidel Castro cracked down on were people who had written for Lunes de Revolución, which was the cultural segment of the revolution’s paper. HEDGES: Right, Carlos Franqui and–. Right. SCHEER: Yeah. Exactly. And these people said, you are betraying the Cuban Revolution. What I say in this book is you’re betraying the basic, positive, most thrilling notion of the American experience, which is the notion that we individuals are the ones that are guarding freedom, not you guys who are in power, and we are obligated as citizens to challenge you at every turn, you have all the power. That is the requirement of our Constitution whether the Supreme Court acknowledges his or not. So I want to call them out. And I think–and that’s why I brought up the biographical things–I think that gives us room to call them out, okay? ‘Cause they have tried to take away our legitimacy. They take away the legitimacy of a Chelsea Manning, right? They say, you are a traitor, right? I am saying, no, Chelsea Manning is a heroine, okay? Heroine. You know, Bill Binney is a hero, Edward Snowden is a great hero, Daniel Ellsberg was a hero, in the same way that Tom Paine was a hero. HEDGES: And we’ll end on that. Thank you very much, Bob Scheer. We’ve been discussing Bob’s extremely important book They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy. It’s been a pleasure. As you know, I hold very few people in this country, certainly very few journalists, in as high a regard as I hold you. Thank you. And thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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Robert Scheer has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country, and his in-depth interviews have made headlines. He conducted the famous Playboy magazine interview in which Jimmy Carter confessed to the lust in his heart and he went on to do many interviews for the Los Angeles Times with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and many other prominent political and cultural figures.

Between 1964 and 1969 he was Vietnam correspondent, managing editor and editor in chief of Ramparts magazine. From 1976 to 1993 he served as a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, writing on diverse topics such as the Soviet Union, arms control, national politics and the military. In 1993 he launched a nationally syndicated column based at the Los Angeles Times, where he was named a contributing editor. That column ran weekly for the next 12 years and is now based at Scheer can be heard on his new podcast “Scheer Intelligence” and the radio program "Left, Right and Center" on KCRW, the National Public Radio affiliate in Santa Monica, Calif. He is currently a clinical professor of communication at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Scheer has written ten books, including "Thinking Tuna Fish, Talking Death: Essays on the Pornography of Power"; "With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War"; "America After Nixon: The Age of Multinationals"; "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us about Iraq" (with Christopher Scheer and Lakshmi Chaudhry); "Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I and Clinton--and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush"; "The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America"; "The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street"; "How the United States Got Involved in Vietnam"; and "Cuba: An American Tragedy". Scheer's latest book is "They Know Everything About You: How Data Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies are Destroying Democracy" (Nation Books, February 2015).

Scheer was raised in the Bronx, where he attended public schools and graduated from City College of New York. He was Maxwell Fellow at Syracuse University and a fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where he did graduate work in economics. Scheer is a contributing editor for The Nation as well as a Nation Fellow. He has also been a Poynter Fellow at Yale and was fellow in Stanford's arms control and disarmament program.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.