Print Edition: April 2, 2014
David Barsamian met me for an interview in one of UFV’s board rooms. The walls were lined with pictures of past UFV presidents and administrative officials, almost all white men. “That’s a group of really diverse people you got there.” His joke cracked with sarcasm, cutting through the air before I could ask a question.
Barsamian’s current speaking tour has him travelling from coast to coast, stopping to lecture at UFV at the request of English professor Prabhjot Parmar. Like all revolutionaries, he is tireless. A master of the interview, he has written books with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Edward Said, and many, many, others. His radio show, Alternative Radio, has featured countless public intellectuals: Cornel West, Chris Hedges, Angela Davis, Benjamin Barber, and Christopher Hitchens — just to name a few.
David Barsamian is a walking TED conference of information and media connections. But unlike a TED video, we get to ask him questions.
You’re from Colorado. With the legalization of marijuana there, do you think corporate interests will dominate the marijuana market and force out independent growers and distributors?
Capitalism doesn’t have any morality. It’s only loyalty is to capital. If they can make money off it, they will. Since the US political system is awash in corporate money, it’s very likely that they will be able to exercise influence on our so-called representatives to wedge themselves into this new burgeoning economy.
The US economy, by the way, is still in recession. Even though Obama announced in 2009 that recovery is on the way. Millions of people are still out of work. Millions more are stuck in dead-end jobs at very poor wages with little opportunity for advancement. Every day we see a great many homeless people in the richest country on Earth.
Do you think Harper is following a US political and economic model?
He’s out-doing the US. Canada is number one in the world when it comes to predatory environmental practices. The Canadian mining industry is in a class by itself in terms of environmental destruction. Do you want to be proud of that, or not?
It’s a problem for us because our national identity is based on being ecologically responsible.
What a joke that is.[pullquote]“Since Canada is a country based on land grabs, and the US is the same, maybe they feel an affinity with
Yeah, it’s embarrassing.
We get jerked around in the US, too. Jive on PBS and NPR. Very sophisticated ads about how much corporations — particularly the most destructive ones — love the environment.
Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Shell — they love to reach the public radio and TV audience because that audience is very class-oriented. They tend to be übereducated. And they’re decision makers. The corporations put their money into public broadcasting because they want to have influence over this particular class.
Do you think the CBC is going down the same path?
Harper wants to starve the CBC and drive them into the US model.
NPR and PBS used to get quite a big chunk of their budget from federal funds. It gave them a relative degree of autonomy. But those funds have come under attack. They’ve shrunk to almost nothing. Now public radio and TV networks are dependent on corporations to give them, essentially, advertising money.
It’s supposed to be non-commercial. In fact, the public broadcasting act of 1967, which set up NPR and PBS, specifically used the term “non-commercial.” The word is used at least 20 times in the language of that law.
Community radio is the good thing amid all the flotsam and jetsam — the toxicity — that corporate media produces.
You’ve compared American empire and imperialism to the history of Rome. Do you see the collapse of American empire coming anytime soon?
No doubt about it. All things come to an end. The US is on a slippery slope of decline. We see that economically the US peaked around 1970. Since then, wages have gone flat, in many instances they’re going down. The working class has been smashed. That’s been accomplished by an enormous corporate lead attack on unions, which have been historically — in Canada, England, and other industrialized societies — the bull of the working class. So even if you weren’t a member of a union, you would benefit from the unions pushing the envelope: asking for sick leave, asking for paid vacations, demanding pensions.
We all do better when we have unions. The US decline is shocking. At one point, 35 per cent of the working class was unionized. Now it’s in the single digits and falling. It’s a race to the bottom.[pullquote]“Community radio is the good thing amid all the flotsam and jetsam — the toxicity — that corporate media produces.”[/pullquote]
If we live in a capitalistic system that is immoral and always snared in economic crisis, how do we work towards a big fix; should we try to bend the system into a new form, or take over institutions and revolutionize them?
It’s an interesting philosophical question. In the US, the ground work has not been laid for a popular revolt to replace the capitalist economic system. That’s going to take work and time.
But there are many openings. Gramsci talked about spaces that exist within the monolith. You look at this wall and think that there are no openings, but if you look closely, there are cracks. It’s our jobs as activists, radicals, progressives — whatever you want to call us — to pour energy into the cracks and make them wider. By the end there is no wall, only openings.
But it takes time to develop that type of understanding.
People are getting ripped off. There is so much poverty and destitution. And there is poverty of the mind, not just poverty of the pocket. There is a lack of creativity, a lack of revolutionary understanding: how culture can be used as a tool to effect social change. Historically, that’s music, theatre, and poetry. Like Shelley’s line, “Ye are many, they are few” from The Masque of Anarchy. Howard Zinn quotes it at the end of his book A People’s History of the United States.
Journalist Chris Hedges often quotes Shelley in his work, too.
Yes, I greatly admire Hedges. He’s been on my show many times as a featured speaker.
Are there any journalists from national papers we should be reading?
No, not from the papers. US papers are done. They don’t produce journalism. They’re just a conduit for propaganda and state-sanctioned opinion. Occasionally, if you look between the lines, you can get good information from The New York Times.[Journalism] is in community radio, independent organizations, and internet sites like Truth Dig, Common Dreams, Counter Spin, and Counter Punch.
The founder of Ebay, Pierre Omidyar, has funded a new online venture, The Intercept. He’s already got four of the best journalists: Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone, Glenn Greenwald from The Guardian, Jeremy Scahill (nominated for an Oscar for his best-selling book turned documentary film Dirty Wars), and independent film maker Laura Poitras. That’s a very positive development in media.
Another good employer for journalists is Al Jazeera. They do things that could never be done on PBS, or any of the corporate networks.[pullquote]“To talk critically about Kashmir in India is to take a great risk because Hindu nationalists go berserk.”[/pullquote]
Hedges went independent, no longer working for the New York Times. He wrote a great article for TruthDig, “The Creed of Objectivity Killed the News,” about the pitfalls of even-handed journalism. What did you think of it?
Even-handed [objective] journalism is a shortcut to selling out. You cannot be even-handed when it comes to the war on nature. Either you defend the environment, or you don’t.
It’s happening in the real capital of Canada: Calgary. You just have to spend some time there to get a sense of what’s going on. It’s like Texas on steroids. The environmental destruction that is coming out of the province is having global repercussions.
But what are we doing? We’re moving deck chairs on the Titanic. Let’s drive a Prius. Let’s recycle. Let’s drink from non-styrofoam cups. These ideas are all cosmetic. They are provided by the corporations to give you the illusion that they care about the environment. And to give the illusion that you’re not contributing to the war on nature.
This isn’t the kind of economics that are taught at UFV or UBC — sure there are a couple of radical profs, but they’re not at a critical level.
British Columbia isn’t known for being too critical when it comes to political economy, but we’re smug when we compare ourselves to US policy.
In most US universities, they’re all about the invisible hand and markets regulating themselves. The main belief is competition. What a joke! They don’t really want competition. They want a monopoly of control.
There is so much bullshit around capitalism, you need to be on a 24/7 watch to sift the bull from the shit.
Does the university play a similar role as media in promoting capitalism?
It’s an established institution like the media. They’re not going to promote revolution. There may be one Marxist professor who teaches about Lenin, Engles, and Bakunin. But they’re not there to change the existing system.
In fact, the few radical professors serve as a propaganda purpose. Look! There is Noam Chomsky at MIT and Naomi Klein at UBC. We’re so liberal! We’re so open![pullquote]“The internet has induced a certain kind of intellectual indolence.” [/pullquote]
The last time you went to India to do interviews, you were banned from entering the country and deported. Why?
I was going to follow up on story I have been pursuing for years: the ongoing Indian occupation of Kashmir. It is a huge human rights debacle that is barely known in the West. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri have been killed and hundreds of thousands put in prison — thousands have just disappeared.
In India, Kashmir occupies the same space in the public imagination that Israel occupies in the North American Zionist imagination. To talk critically about Kashmir in India is to take a great risk because Hindu nationalists go berserk. They’re not interested in evidence, it’s all about visceral reaction.
So, even though I had a valid visa — I’d been going to to India since 1966 — I wasn’t let in.
Our current government is very close with Israel.
If Harper were to become any more pro-Israel he would be Israeli. He’s more Israeli than Israelis! People are in awe that he can show up and mouth platitudes and clichés about Israel with a total unawareness of the internal politics of that country and the land grabs that are going on.
But since Canada is a country based on land grabs, and the US is the same, maybe they feel an affinity with Israel.
Journalists want to be good reporters, but we also want to be able to pay the rent. How do you fund your work as an independent reporter?
Alternative Radio is syndicated on over 200 radio stations around the world. It has a interesting funding model. I give the program away to stations for free. I’m depending on people to tune in and hear a speech by Naomi Klein, David Suzuki, or Noam Chomsky. If you want an mp3, a transcript, a CD, then you can buy it.
Alternative Radio is a huge network, but it’s only run by me and two other people. And it exists in a tiny office space in Boulder, Colorado.
And I do articles: The Progressive, The Sun, The Nation, and other magazines. I juggle a lot of things.
Do you think there is a decline in literacy, not just written media, but in the deep understanding of visual media?
That problem comes from a failure in the education system, which is not teaching critical thinking. Students can’t break down arguments. And the internet has induced a certain kind of intellectual indolence.
Do you think Marxism will remain a dirty word in North American discourse?
It’s been freighted with a lot of historical baggage. Propaganda from capitalist institutions want to discredit the one sophisticated counter-balance to its hegemony.
But let’s call it something else. Let’s call it collectivism. Let’s call it socialism. Let’s invent a new word! Let’s call it Harperism [laughs], Groucho Harperism, or Groucho Marxism — the real Marx!
One of the great tragedies of the 20th century, according to Howard Zinn, was when the Soviet Union appropriated “socialist” into its name: the Union of Soviet Social Republics. The Soviet Union has nothing to do with socialism.
The aberration that was created in the Soviet Union was top-down, hierarchical, and elite-driven. It had nothing to do with democracy. If socialism means anything, it means democratic outcomes and participation: a voice for people, not for a handful of elites.
Your latest book with Chomsky, Power Systems, is loaded with content. Are people still buying books? Is that another form of income for journalists?
Yeah, it is. Power Systems came out less than a year ago. It’s sold 18,000 copies in the US — that’s pretty respectable for a radical book. It’s been published all over the world in translations: Korean, Serbian, German, French, Portuguese. It seems like every three weeks my publisher sends me a new edition of a book in a language I usually can’t read.
Chomsky is the one intellectual that everyone knows.
There is a curious thing. In the New York Times crossword puzzle — which I do — you know what the clue is? Linguist Chomsky. They would never put radical dissident Chomsky, or social critic Chomsky.
How can the average person better understand political issues?
Do you know what the best single work on imperialism is? It’s not Lenin. It’s Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness. That’s what you need to read.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.