Shattered peace: Israel-Palestine

Josh Ruebner
University of Colorado
Boulder, CO
5 November 2014

Outrage follows outrage in Israel and Palestine. Yesterday’s atrocity is quickly forgotten as a new one occurs. There is a dizzying vortex kidnappings, stabbings, killings of teenagers and rabbis, attacks on synagogues and mosques, rockets, invasions, bombings, curfews, collective punishment, and demolition of homes. Meanwhile, Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land, contravening international law, continue unabated. Occasionally, Washington says they are “unhelpful.” But there are no consequences. U.S. policy, meek rhetoric aside, enables settlements. The so-called peace process is dead. The Palestinians feel hopeless and desperate. Their prospects for a viable state seem more remote than ever. The prescription for more violence is in place. Can these polarized and deeply divided communities live together or are they destined to be in perpetual conflict? What would constitute a just and lasting peace?

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. He founded and directed Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, which merged with Jewish Voice for Peace. He is the author of Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

You can listen to Josh Ruebner speak for himself (an mp3 clip) here.
You can get a printable version of this talk (a PDF file) here.

Thank you for coming out to talk about what I think is an incredibly important foreign policy issue, which is the way that our country relates to Israel and the Palestinian people and how we may or, more accurately, may not help bring about a just and lasting peace between the two, given the configuration of our current politics.

Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace. I often get chided by people. Why am I picking on President Obama? Isn’t it true that all presidents, Democrats, Republicans alike, since Harry Truman, recognized the state of Israel in 1948, have tried their hand at brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace and all of them have failed? Yes, this is true. So this is not a singling out of the current president, but rather a case study in how the U.S. under Obama has continued our country’s policies of providing Israel with nearly unlimited and unconditional military, diplomatic, and political support for its ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.

This policy of what I would argue to be U.S. complicity in Israel’s human rights abuses of the Palestinian people has only strengthened over the past six years, despite the fact that President Obama has been the most rhetorically sympathetic to the Palestinian people of any president, including Jimmy Carter, by the way. Jimmy Carter never got further than expressing support for a homeland for the Palestinian people and for self-determination for the Palestinian people. President Barack Obama has gone well beyond that. When he spoke in Cairo in the summer of 2009, just six months into his presidency, he talked about the daily indignities and humiliations the Palestinians face under Israeli military occupation, and he also talked about the fact that Palestinian refugees languish in refugee camps, denied their right to live in peace and security. No U.S. president has ever talked this forthrightly about the injustices done to the Palestinian people by the state of Israel over the past 67 years.

I think what occurred summer in the Gaza strip is a perfect example of exactly how the U.S. supports Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people no matter how egregious Israel’s behaviors and policies might be. Before I share with you some of the statistics which emerged from the Gaza Strip this summer, I think it’s important to share a few stories of actual human beings who were impacted by events that took place in the Gaza Strip, because as much as we discuss statistics when we talk about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it’s always important to remember, to realize that behind all of these statistics there are real human beings with lives and hopes and aspirations and dreams and desires to live in dignity and in liberty.

Who can forget the images of the four young Bakr cousins blown to bits by an Israeli naval artillery shell on the beaches of Gaza City in full view of the international media? Or the story of Shayma al-Sheikh Qanan, aged 23, who was 8 months pregnant for the first time in her life when she was struck down by an Israeli artillery shell, which demolished her house, burying her under the rubble. Shayma was pulled from the rubble, brought to the hospital, where her unborn child was miraculously delivered by Caesarean section, despite the fact that she had already perished. This miracle child was named after her mother, Shyama, and symbolized to Palestinians, both in the Gaza Strip and further afield than that, the rebirth of Palestinian society, of Palestinian life, hopes, and dreams. But the miracle child, sadly, only lived for just five days, because the life sustaining her was in the form of an incubator, and the incubator lost power after Israel deliberately targeted for destruction Gaza’s only power plant, knocking it off line, cutting off electricity to the hospital where this child was being kept alive.

I just read yesterday a new update from the United Nations actually documenting that the destruction by Israel in the Gaza Strip this summer was more widespread than initially thought. The numbers are now that Israel in just 50 days of fighting killed more than 2,250 Palestinians, more than 70% of all Palestinians killed were definitively civilians, according to the United Nations. More than 11,000 people were wounded, many grievously, losing limbs. And 538 children were killed, or more than 10 children per day, in Israel’s attack.

We often hear from our mainstream media, from Israel’s supporters in this country that it is Israelis who face political violence from Palestinians. We even hear some people assert that this level of political violence by Palestinians against Israelis is tantamount to some form of an existential threat against the state of Israel. And from these dire analyses we might expect that, yes, indeed, Israelis are dying at far higher rates than Palestinians in political violence. But this flips reality on its head. This is not at all true. This summer, more children were killed by Israel in 50 days of fighting than the entire number of Israelis killed in Palestinian political violence, adults and children, civilians and all soldiers in more than 10 years. Five hundred thirty-eight children were killed by Israel this summer, 347 Israelis have died in the last decade. This is the reality. This is the magnitude, this is the scale of Israel’s oppression in maintaining its 47-year military occupation of the Gaza Strip, of the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Because, of course, in order to strip a people of dignity and self-determination and to maintain them under these types of oppressive conditions, systematic violence is necessary to keep them pinned down under these circumstances. Because no people will ever agree voluntarily to give up their freedom and their dignity and their right to self-determination. It’s the violence inherent in the system which leads to these kinds of horrific statistics.

Originally the UN thought that 18,000 Palestinian homes were damaged, initially the estimates were that 6% of the entire population of the Gaza Strip were made homeless by Israel. But the revised figures indicate that actually 100,000 housing units were either damaged or destroyed by Israel, affecting one-third of the entire population of the Gaza Strip.

We saw Israel attack, damage, or destroy 140 Palestinian schools in the Gaza Strip. Can you imagine what the reaction would be from our members of Congress, our media, people who support Israel in this country if Palestinians damaged or destroyed one Israeli school? But Israel damaged or destroyed 140 Palestinian schools in the Gaza Strip, including attacking deliberately three UN schools which were serving as safe havens for internally displaced Palestinians.

We often hear that Israel is the “most moral army in the world” because the Israel military does things like call Palestinians on their cell phones and drop millions of fliers saying,

Get out. We’re going to bomb your neighborhood, we’re going to destroy it.

Sometimes Israel does what they call “roof knocking.” This is to deliver a so-called dud missile onto the roof of a home that’s going to be destroyed. And if you’re a Palestinian who resides in one of these houses, perhaps you will have 90 seconds, maybe 60 seconds, maybe 30 seconds to grab your stuff and go, to grab your loved ones and go, to try to get people in wheelchairs out of homes in 60 seconds.

Many Palestinians received this “roof knocking” by Israel, received these cell phone calls, received these fliers that were dropped in the air. And they indeed fled their homes, because Israel did indeed destroy these neighborhoods.

They fled to where they thought they would be safe, which were these UN schools which were serving as shelters for internally displaced Palestinians. On three separate occasions Israel bombed these UN schools, despite the fact that the UN had given Israel the exact GPS coordinates of these schools not once, not twice. This was no accident. The UN gave Israel the GPS coordinates of these UN shelters on a dozen occasions each. Israel still bombed them, knowing full well that innocent civilians by the thousands were taking shelter there.

We hear from Israel that this was a war against Hamas, an attack to destroy its arsenal of weapons, to destroy its network and infrastructure of tunnels, so on and so forth. And, of course, there were Israeli military attacks against Hamas targets. But this was certainly not the primary objective. The primary objective of this attack was, in Israeli political parlance, to “mow the lawn.” This extremely dehumanizing term refers to Israel’s regular efforts to slowly depopulate the Gaza Strip by killing people off.

Today, Amnesty International came out with a report showing that Israel showed “callous indifference” toward Palestinians. This was not an attack against Hamas. This was an attack against Palestinians and their ability to live normal lives in the Gaza Strip, which is, of course, impeded in the first place by the fact that you’ve had this illegal Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip for now seven years, which has prevented the importation of essential foods and medicines and equipment for running infrastructure like water treatment, like sewage treatment. So this blockade has created a humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip.

The United Nations has estimated that it’s going to cost about $8 billion to rebuild the damage that Israel inflicted on the Gaza Strip this summer. Or to put it in other terms, a little bit less than three years in the amount of military aid, weapons that we as U.S. taxpayers provided to the state of Israel to demolish the Gaza Strip in the first place.

This is, of course, not the first time that Israel has completely demolished the Gaza strip. It did so in 2012, it did so in 2008-2009, it did so in 2006 as well. Every few years Israel demolishes billions of dollars’ worth of civilian infrastructure and homes in the Gaza Strip. And we keep paying Israel, giving Israel money and weapons to destroy it yet again. On top of that, then we go to international donors’ conferences in Cairo and pledge to rebuild it. And John Kerry says that this will never happen again: Gaza won’t be attacked again. Who is he kidding?

Because of Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip, the UN has actually estimated that it’s going to take 20 years to rebuild Gaza to the very precarious point that it was on July 6th. Twenty years. Can you imagine having a foreign army come in and destroy your home, destroy your children’s school, and the international community says, Oh, sorry, you’re not going to get any compensation, but you’re going to have to wait 20 years to have your house rebuilt? This is the situation today that faces Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. And even if somehow one thought that it was fair, just or right to have to wait 20 years to have your infrastructure rebuilt due to these massacres, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip don’t have 20 years. That’s the reality of the situation. Because the United Nations published a report a few years ago that documented that because of the environmental degradation foisted upon the Gaza Strip by Israel’s blockade, and due to the growing overpopulation of the Gaza Strip, it simply won’t be habitable for human beings by 2020. That’s just six years from now. So by the time the international community gets around to paying to rebuild what Israel demolished this summer in the Gaza Strip, it will be too late. It won’t be habitable anymore for human beings.

What was the response of our government? Was it to demand that Israel stop employing these U.S. weapons, in violation of U.S. law, to commit these human rights abuses? Was it to demand that Israel be held accountable for the war crimes that it had committed in the Gaza Strip? And, yes, when you deliberately target civilians and civilian infrastructure, it is a war crime. It is a war crime under international law. For those of you who know this issue, I think you know the answer. The answer is, of course, no. The U.S. didn’t say anything of the sort. In fact, John Kerry, Secretary of State, referred to Israel’s actions as being “appropriate and legitimate.”

We often hear that Israel acted in “self-defense” by “responding to Hamas rockets.” So a reporter at the State Department’s daily press briefing asked the State Department spokesperson, If the right of self-defense is a universal right that pertains to every human being, don’t Palestinians also have the right to defend themselves? Don’t Palestinians have the ability to defend their families and protect their homes and their schools and their businesses? The response of our government was to say that this was an “offensive notion.” It was an “offensive notion” to think that what Palestinians might be doing is simply defending their lives and their property.

The Obama administration, on behalf of the U.S., cast the only no vote in the UN Human Rights Council against the establishment of simply a fact-finding mission to examine the actions and the behaviors of both Israel and Palestinian groups. Do you know why the State Department claimed that the Obama administration voted against the establishment of this fact-finding mission? It was because it was “one-sided” and “unbalanced” and “biased” despite the fact that they hadn’t investigated anything, despite the fact that the composition of the investigation team hadn’t been decided upon, and despite the fact that the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution to examine the conduct of all parties. This is the extent of bias that is inherent in our foreign policy when it comes to Israel and the Palestinian people.

You might be thinking,

Well, isn’t it true that the U.S. got really mad at Israel the third time that it bombed a UN school?

Yes, that’s true. Maybe you’re thinking,

Isn’t it true that President Obama expressed his remorse about Palestinian civilian casualties?

Yes, that’s true as well. But at the same time that President Obama was saying how sorry he was for all these Palestinian children dying, the U.S. was actually rearming Israel. President Obama gave special authorization to Israel during the attack to take stockpiles of U.S. weapons that are located in Israel and to draw from these stockpiles of U.S. weapons to replenish their arsenal. The very same tank artillery shells, the very same bazooka shells that had demolished entire neighborhoods like Shejaiya in the Gaza Strip, these weapons were given Israel to continue the attack. How can you say that you’re concerned about the death of Palestinian civilians when you’re arming Israel to continue the attack?

To understand what happened to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip one first has to understand the collective brutality inflicted upon Palestinian society in 1948, when Israel was established, what Palestinians refer to as the Naqba, or catastrophe, because indeed it was a catastrophe for the Palestinian people. It was a catastrophe for the Palestinian people because when Israel established its sovereignty on more than three-quarters, 78%, of historic Palestine, it engaged in a premeditated and very systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing to drive out as many Palestinians from their homes, from as much of historic Palestine as possible. This is all documented in books like Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, where he talks about how Israel wiped off the face of the map 531 Palestinian villages in 1948, how Israel emptied 11 Palestinian urban neighborhoods of their inhabitants. And what Israel would like you not to know is that between 80% and 90% of the indigenous population of Palestinians were driven, expelled from their homes by Israel in 1948 to create the so-called Jewish state.

The only reason why Israel today is a country which has a majority of its citizens who are Jewish is because of this is act of ethnic cleansing and the refusal to make it right. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every human being has the right to leave their home at any time and for any reason and to return at any time and for any reason. And despite Israel’s agreeing, upon joining the UN in 1949, that Palestinian refugees who wished to return to their homes could do so, despite that fact, here we are 65 years after Israel joined the United Nations, and Palestinian refugees still don’t have their right of return to their homes and their properties.

Why? Because Israel does not view Palestinian refugees as human beings with human rights. They view them as a “demographic threat.” And Israel believes that it has a so-called “right” to maintain the bitter fruits of this ethnic-cleansing campaign and to deny these refugees their rights of return because they are not the “right nationality,” they’re not the “right religion.” You can scour the international law books for such a right to ethnically cleanse people and to deny them their right of return based on their ethnicity or their nationality, but I’ll tell you right now, you’re not going to find it. There is no such right under international law.

Not all Palestinians were ethnically cleansed by Israel in 1948. Some resisted this ethnic-cleansing campaign, stayed where they were, and eventually became citizens of the state of Israel. Israel claims to be a “democracy” because these Palestinians citizens of Israel have the right to vote, they have the right to run for office. There are, in fact, Palestinian members of Israel’s parliament today. All of this is undeniably true. But does having the right to vote equal democracy? I would say no. I would say voting is, of course, a prerequisite to having a democratic country, but voting is not the be-all and end-all. The cornerstone of living in a democratic state is that the state treats you with equality regardless of your race, regardless of your ethnicity, regardless of your religion. This is the notion on which democracy is founded.

Palestinian citizens of Israel—who, by the way, are 20% of Israel’s population, so one in five Israelis are Palestinian—are not at all treated equally. They’re not even really second-class citizens. That would be putting it kindly. They’re more like unwanted reminders to the state of Israel that the ethnic-cleansing campaign of 1948 did not fully succeed. So Palestinian citizens of Israel today face more than 50 discriminatory laws, which privilege Jewish citizens of the state and discriminate against them in housing, in land use, in governmental services, in health care delivery, in educational spending. The Israeli government spends $10 on education for its Jewish citizens for every $1 that’s spent on the education of its Palestinian citizens. And the two school systems are completely segregated except for one or two examples of private schools. Completely segregated. So that if you’re Palestinian, you must go to the inferior and underfunded Arabic-language school; but if you’re Jewish Israeli, you go to the well-funded Jewish only, Hebrew-speaking school. As we know from the tortured racial history of our country, separate always means unequal.

This was the situation in a nutshell up until 1967, when Israel conquered the remaining 22% of historic Palestine, what we today call the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Since that time Israel has held those territories, in the words of the Israeli Supreme Court, by the way, under “belligerent military occupation.” Under this “belligerent military occupation,” Palestinians are stripped of all of their political rights whatsoever. Every single right that you and I take for granted in this country does not apply to Palestinians under military occupation.

The very first military order that Israel passed when it occupied these territories, military order No. 101, made it illegal for Palestinians to write an article in the Palestinian media, which is critical of Israel. It made it illegal for Palestinians to join a political party. All political parties are illegal under Israeli military occupation, including, technically, the parties that Israel sits at the negotiating table with. They’re all illegal. It’s illegal to wave a Palestinian flag under Israeli military occupation. And it’s illegal for Palestinians to gather in groups of 10 people or more for any political purpose whatsoever, including the right of nonviolent protest and nonviolent political expression. These rights are denied to Palestinians under Israeli military occupation. These are not denied, however, to Israeli Jews who have come to colonize expropriated Palestinian lands in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In fact, of course, they come there at the behest of the Israeli government and are given tax breaks to come live on expropriated Palestinian lands.

The discrimination between these two populations in the occupied Palestinian territories is so blatant that there are actually—those of you who have been there know this—two different colored license plates, one for Palestinians under military occupation, the other for Israeli Jewish colonizers. Israel has actually built a whole road infrastructure in the West Bank that Palestinians are not even allowed to drive on. This is the degree and the blatant nature of the discrimination that exists between these two populations.

So when you look at the totality of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people, what we have is certainly no democracy. Israel is at best what I think political scientists call an ethnocracy, meaning democracy for a limited ethnic segment of the population. Calling Israel, either today or in 1948 or at any time in between, a democracy is like saying that the U.S. was a democracy upon our founding, when only white males who owned substantial amounts of property had the right to vote. We completely excluded from the body politic women, the indigenous population that we were busy exterminating, and the millions of Africans who were brought to this country as slaves to build the wealth and power of this nation. That’s no democracy. South Africa liked to claim that it was a democracy under apartheid. Who were they kidding that it’s a democracy if only white people can vote? Who are we kidding by saying that Israel is a democracy when even Palestinian citizens of Israel face 50 discriminatory laws? And when we factor in that Palestinian refugees have been driven from their homes and not allowed to return? And when we factor into the equation Palestinians who have lived under Israeli military occupation for now nearly half a century, denied all of their political rights whatsoever. This is not a democracy. This is an apartheid regime.

Yes, the word apartheid comes to us via the South African context, but, no, it’s not limited in its application to a discussion of South Africa. Because in the 1970s, the international community passed a treaty defining apartheid as a crime against humanity and giving it universal applicability. The UN defined apartheid as any governmental system that privileges one set of people and discriminates against another set of people based on factors such as their race, their religion, their ethnicity, table with. They’re all illegal. It’s illegal to wave a Palestinian flag under Israeli military occupation. And it’s illegal for Palestinians to gather in groups of 10 people or more for any political purpose whatsoever, including the right of nonviolent protest and nonviolent political expression. These rights are denied to Palestinians under Israeli military occupation. These are not denied, however, to Israeli Jews who have come to colonize expropriated Palestinian lands in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In fact, of course, they come there at the behest of the Israeli government and are given tax breaks to come live on expropriated Palestinian lands.

The discrimination between these two populations in the occupied Palestinian territories is so blatant that there are actually—those of you who have been there know this—two different colored license plates, one for Palestinians under military occupation, the other for Israeli Jewish colonizers. Israel has actually built a whole road infrastructure in the West Bank that Palestinians are not even allowed to drive on. This is the degree and the blatant nature of the discrimination that exists between these two populations.

So when you look at the totality of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people, what we have is certainly no democracy. Israel is at best what I think political scientists call an ethnocracy, meaning democracy for a limited ethnic segment of the population. Calling Israel, either today or in 1948 or at any time in between, a democracy is like saying that the U.S. was a democracy upon our founding, when only white males who owned substantial amounts of property had the right to vote. We completely excluded from the body politic women, the indigenous population that we were busy exterminating, and the millions of Africans who were brought to this country as slaves to build the wealth and power of this nation. That’s no democracy. South Africa liked to claim that it was a democracy under apartheid. Who were they kidding that it’s a democracy if only white people can vote? Who are we kidding by saying that Israel is a democracy when even Palestinian citizens of Israel face 50 discriminatory laws? And when we factor in that Palestinian refugees have been driven from their homes and not allowed to return? And when we factor into the equation Palestinians who have lived under Israeli military occupation for now nearly half a century, denied all of their political rights whatsoever. This is not a democracy. This is an apartheid regime.

Yes, the word apartheid comes to us via the South African context, but, no, it’s not limited in its application to a discussion of South Africa. Because in the 1970s, the international community passed a treaty defining apartheid as a crime against humanity and giving it universal applicability. The UN defined apartheid as any governmental system that privileges one set of people and discriminates against another set of people based on factors such as their race, their religion, their ethnicity, their national origin. This is exactly what Israel admits to doing when it demands to be recognized not as a state of all of its citizens, not as a country with equal rights for all of those over whom it rules, but as a “Jewish state”—a “Jewish state” that’s set up for the exclusive privilege and prerogative of Jewish people, whether they’re citizens of the state or not.

The problem with the U.S.-led so-called peace process has not been about ending Israel’s apartheid domination over the Palestinian people but the reverse. It is about making permanent and even reifying the notion that Israel should be an apartheid state. Some of you may be thinking, This doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, because I thought the goal of this peace process was the establishment of a Palestinian state on parts or all of land occupied by Israel in 1967: the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip. Isn’t it true, you might be thinking, that all of the parties to these negotiations agree that this should be the goal, this should be the outcome of these talks? So how can I say this is about strengthening Israeli apartheid when the goal is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state through which Palestinians can exercise self-determination?

The reason I say this is that just because all the parties say that they want the same thing, it doesn’t mean the same thing. So when the Palestinian negotiating team says that they want a state, what they mean is they want a state that has all the powers and sovereignties and prerogatives of 193 other nations in the world. But when Israel, backed by the U.S., says that it wants a “Palestinian state,” this means something completely different. This is a diametrically opposed vision, 180 degrees different.

The proposal put forward by John Kerry at the behest of Israel this spring of 2014 would not have created an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. It would have created a non-sovereign entity under the complete control and domination of the state of Israel from without. This is the main reason why Kerry’s so-called peace process failed. What Kerry was offering the Palestinians on behalf of Israel—and by the way, this is always how the negotiations work—was the U.S. proposing to Palestinians Israel’s ideas for how to maintain control over them. This is the rigged nature of the game.

So what Kerry put forward was that Palestinians would have no control over the borders of their so-called state. Those would be controlled by Israel. In fact, the West Bank would be cut off from its neighbor Jordan by a long-term Israeli-U.S. joint military presence there. Think of all the things that we do as a sovereign state: we control our borders, our airspace, our territorial waters, our natural resources, we have our own army, our own foreign policy, our own foreign economic policy. All these things we associate with sovereignty in the modern political system. Not a single one of these things would apply to the so-called state that John Kerry was proposing. In fact, Palestinians would not even have control over their electromagnetic sphere under John Kerry’s proposal. I have to confess, I don’t know anything about science, and I had no idea what an electromagnetic sphere meant until the Israeli prime minister started talking about it all the time. It refers to things like radio signals and cell phone networks and so forth. Palestinians won’t even be able to control their cell phones under the deal put forward by John Kerry. All of the military infrastructure that Israel has built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last half century stays where it is. The apartheid wall that Israel has built stays where it is. The military bases Israel has built stay where they are.

Eighty to 90% the settlement population would get annexed to Israel, chopping the West Bank up into tiny little disconnected fragments of land cut off from one another by these Israeli settlements, by Israel’s apartheid road infrastructure network, by Israel’s apartheid wall. And what would be created in the West Bank would be a second version of what the Gaza Strip is today, a blockaded, non-sovereign entity completely under Israel’s control from without, with Israel able to attack it and demolish it at any time. Palestinians also would have no sovereignty in Jerusalem under John Kerry’s plan. Instead, John Kerry talked about “future aspirations” for Palestinians to have sovereignty in Jerusalem. What “future aspirations” are we talking about when John Kerry said this deal is a be all and end all, there are no more claims after this? What kind of “future aspirations” are we talking about? Palestinian refugees would not have the right of return, and Israel would maintain its more than 50 discriminatory laws against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

So as the contours of this deal became clear to the Palestinians and that they weren’t going to get a fair shake out of the U.S. yet again, the negotiating team was debriefing with the White House, and the lead Palestinian negotiator, Dr. Saeb Erekat, runs into Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, in the corridors of the White House. Saeb Erekat said,

Susan, I see we’ve yet to succeed in making it clear to you that we Palestinians aren’t stupid.

To this Rice gets indignant, she gets livid. She can’t believe that the dispossessed, the colonized, the oppressed of the world would dare to challenge the superpower in this way, would dare not to accept the crumbs being thrown at their feet. And Susan Rice said,

You Palestinians can never see the fucking big picture.

This is how our government talks to the representative of a dispossessed, colonized, oppressed people denied self-determination.

So where are we today, now that Kerry’s so-called peace process has collapsed for good? We are at the end of what I believe is basically the second historical phase in how Zionism and the state of Israel relate to the indigenous population that it colonized and dispossessed. I say the end of the second phase. Let me give you the first one first.

The first phase lasted approximately from 1880 up until 1980, basically a century, and was summed up in the pithy expression of Zionism being a movement for

a land without a people for a people without a land.

If this were true about Zionism, that it really was a land without a people, then perhaps there would be no moral problems with Zionism and the state of Israel. But, of course, to colonize lands, there has to be an indigenous population who gets colonized, who gets dispossessed, who gets moved off of that land. That is, of course, the Palestinian people.

In the 1980s, when it became increasingly untenable for Israel to deny the existence of this Palestinian people, largely because of the first Intifada, Intifada in Arabic, or uprising, against Israeli military occupation, we entered the second phase, which was basically to provide Palestinians under Israeli military occupation with limited autonomy, under the complete domination of the state of Israel. This notion of providing limited autonomy to the Palestinians has basically been the defining Israeli political project since the 1980s. It’s just changed names a little bit. It’s gone from autonomy to “state.” But this “state” is really no different from the powers envisioned for this limited autonomy way back in the 1980s.

So what we’re seeing as an end of this paradigm today, in 2014, is that this is not me, Josh Ruebner, little old nobody, who is standing up here and saying that this so-called two-state resolution paradigm is dead, this is John Kerry, our Secretary of State, who has admitted as much. He admitted as much in the spring of 2013, when he testified before Congress—mind you, this was about 18 months ago—that there is a one-to-one-and-a-half-to-two-year window of opportunity for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue on a two-state basis. So if even John Kerry has recognized that this window has now closed, what are we still doing pretending that it’s an option? How long is it going to take our politicians to recognize that the tired, hidebound platitudes simply don’t apply anymore to understanding how to resolve this issue fairly and justly? So the question is, How do we get from where we are today, which is stuck, to getting to a just and lasting peace?

The first thing I think we have to do is we have to pressure our politicians, because we as American citizens, no matter what our religious or ethnic backgrounds are, are complicit in Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people by virtue of both the weapons that we give to Israel and the diplomatic support which prevents Israel from being held accountable for its actions in the international community, no matter how egregious. So, one, we have to demand that our politicians change this morally bankrupt policy.

The second thing we need to do is to respond to what Palestinians are asking people of conscience around the world to do, which is to engage in campaigns of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, against corporations which are literally profiting from their oppression of the Palestinian people. We’re seeing this BDS movement rise and grow stronger by the day. Macy’s has announced that it has pulled SodaStream from its line of products because SodaStream is a product made in an illegal Israeli colony in the West Bank. Actually, because of this pressure from the international BDS campaign, SodaStream last week announced that it is indeed shutting its factory in this illegal Israeli colony in the West Bank. These types of campaigns are working. We see the Presbyterian Church (USA) divest from Caterpillar, divest from Motorola, divest from Hewlett-Packard, corporations which all sell equipment to the Israeli military, used to commit human rights abuses of the Palestinian people. This movement is working, despite what Israel claims, despite what its supporters claim. By the way, they’re throwing millions of dollars into the campaign to try to defeat the BDS movement and they’re still failing. So they’re relying more and more on outright repression, because the debate has been lost.

Israel has lost the debate. The only question is, For how much longer can it continue the repression of dissent against this policy and prevent people from organizing and do the moral thing? I don’t think it’s much longer. Because structures of oppression can, I think, appear very solid from the outside but yet might be rotting from within, might be coming under so much pressure from without that they buckle and collapse. This is indeed what the BDS movement is doing: It is helping to pull out the pillars of support that sustain Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. And when enough of these pillars are pulled out, I think the whole structure will become unstable and collapse very quickly. All of the people whom I have spoken to who were involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa told me they never thought they would see the day when apartheid in South Africa ended. Then one day it did.

So this is our job: to continue this work, to not despair, and to continue until enough of these pillars of oppression are pulled out. And only when Israel’s superstructure of apartheid toward the Palestinian people has ended, can the parties then come and discuss a just and lasting peace.

Thank you.

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Answers to audience questions

The first question was related to the recent provocations by extreme Israeli Jews who want to demolish the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and build a new Jewish temple on their ashes. Obviously, such types of plans and actions could be cataclysmic, could invoke the specter of religious war. What’s happening in al-Aqsa is extremely worrying. It’s obviously a very sensitive site. The new sort of Israeli Jewish extremist line is that, Oh, well, we just want equal rights. We just want the ability for Jews to pray at this site, too. This is not equal rights. This is about demolishing one religious site to build another religious site there. We’ve seen how that’s worked out in history. So it’s very worrying. And, yes, there are lots of tensions in Jerusalem right now. I think the probability of another uprising or Intifada against Israel’s military occupation is likely. Even Secretary of State John Kerry, even President Barack Obama say over and over again that the situation is unsustainable. Agreed, it’s not sustainable. It’s going to erupt. It’s always erupting, but it’s really going to erupt sometime soon.

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Hamas. What is Hamas’s culpability in terms of the violence inflicted on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip? Let me start off by backing up a step and saying that as an organization that supports human rights and international law, we believe that the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure is a war crime, is wrong, is immoral. So we condemn that when Israel does it with U.S. weapons, and we’re against it as well when Hamas launches rockets against Israeli civilians. In terms of Hamas’s use of force, we have to distinguish between what is legitimate use of force and what’s not legitimate. So it’s not legitimate to fire rockets against civilian populations. Agreed. But does Hamas have the right to pick up weapons and defend itself and fight back against Israeli troops attacking Palestinians in the Gaza Strip? Yes, they do. You might not like the fact that Hamas is doing so. You might think that Palestinians might be better off pursuing a wholly nonviolent strategy. But under international law it’s the right of occupied people to resist occupation by military means. That means when Hamas strikes at Israeli military targets, it’s legitimate under international law.

We heard a lot in the recent attack this summer that Hamas was using Palestinians as “human shields.” Congress, in fact, passed a resolution, I believe by unanimous consent, condemning Hamas for using Palestinians as “human shields.” “Human shields” is a term that has a distinct meaning under international law, and it means forcing civilians to remain in harm’s way during fighting between militaries or paramilitaries. The New York Times, certainly no friend of Hamas, and certainly no friend of the Palestinian people, I would argue, actually said—I believe it was two days before Congress passed this resolution—that there was “no evidence whatsoever of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields.” There was no evidence and no one has put forward any evidence that Hamas forced Palestinians to stay in harm’s way, which is the definition of “human shields.”

On the contrary, Israel has a long record, which is well documented by international human rights organizations and Israeli human rights organizations, of using Palestinians as human shields. You can go on the Internet and do a Google image search—and, yes, I know Photoshop distorts images and so forth—and look at these credible human rights organizations’ reports on Israel’s practice of using Palestinians as human shields. And you will see how Israel ties Palestinian kids to their half-tracks, to their armored personnel carriers, to try to prevent stones from being thrown at them. In fact, in this latest attack in Gaza, Defense for Children International Palestine documented the case of Israel abducting, I believe it was, a 15-year-old boy in the Gaza Strip and forcing him to dig for Hamas tunnels for three days, putting him in harm’s way rather than the military. This is the definition of “human shields.” And the reality is Israel is the one that is engaged in this practice.

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What would a one-state solution look like? There are basically two models for how this would work. One would be a majoritarian system a la South Africa. In other words, one person, one vote, a unitary structure for the state. The other model would be some kind of bi-national setup, kind of like what you have in Belgium today, where you have two distinct national communities with separate identities and some separate institutions that come together at the federal level for joint decision making. These are basically the two options for what a one-state resolution might look like. They could all be configured lots of different ways, and political scientists have, I think, put out dozens of different studies about how this would work constitutionally and legally. But ultimately I think any just and fair resolution to this issue has to involve Palestinians attaining equal rights to Israeli Jews, no matter how you slice that, no matter how you set it up constitutionally.

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What to say to your pro-Israel friends who might be open to hearing what you have to say but would not necessarily agree with what I’ve said here tonight? The first principle of organizing is to start where people are at, not where you want them to go. So it’s with that organizing maxim in mind that I think we have to approach people, to recognize their fears, their concerns, their ignorance in many cases, and to, I think, engage people not on a debate on the issues right away but to engage them on what their values are. What do you value? Do you value life? Do you value dignity for human beings? Of course everyone is going to say yes. Then you can engage on the factual issues at hand to show how this is actually conflicting with what they say they’re in support of.

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What can you do physically on the ground? There are a number of Palestinian villages that hold weekly nonviolent protests that you can get involved with. They’re always open to Israeli, Jewish participation in solidarity with them. There are a number of good Israeli peace organizations that are doing on-the-ground work, like ICAHD, the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, which engages in the rebuilding of destroyed Palestinian homes. There’s Rabbis for Human Rights, which helped to replant uprooted olive trees. There’s Anarchists Against the Wall, which go and protest every Friday, I believe, against Israel’s apartheid wall. So there’s lots of different ways that you can get involved and lots of good organizations doing good, hands-on type of work there.

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For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977

Posted in Apartheid in the "Holy Land" | Leave a comment

Capitalism versus the climate

Naomi Klein
Town Hall
Seattle, WA
28 September 2014

Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.

Those words of warning were written in 1992 by some 1,700 scientists including more than 100 Nobel laureates. Here we are, more than two decades later still talking, still drilling and doing very little to protect our precious planet from an economic system that prioritizes profits over the well being of Earth.

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, author and filmmaker. Her articles appear in major newspapers and magazines all over the world. She is the author of the bestsellers No Logo, The Shock Doctrine, and This Changes Everything.

You can listen to Naomi Klein speak for herself (an mp3 clip) here.
You can get a printable version of this talk (a PDF file) here.

This Changes Everything. The reason I chose this title is not because I think my book will change everything but because I think climate change changes everything. And I think that that’s a good place to start the discussion. When choosing a title, it’s good to choose a title that starts the discussion where you think it should start, because a lot of interviews begin with

Why is your book called that?

The reason it’s a good place to start the discussion is because it’s important for us to understand that we have procrastinated so long that there are now no nonradical solutions left on the table. If we stay on the road we’re on, we face radical changes to our physical world. This is what the vast majority of climate scientists tell us and now what some of our most conservative, staid institutions are telling us. The World Bank, the International Energy Agency, Price Waterhouse Coopers tell us that if we stay on the road we’re on, we are headed towards warming of between 4 and 6 degrees Centigrade. That’s 10.7 Fahrenheit on the high end. That is incompatible with anything that we might call organized, civilized society.

All the models break down, really, after 3 degrees. The scientists tell us they don’t know what this would look like beyond the fact that it would be radical change, it would be whole, huge cities under water, whole countries disappeared, it would be massive crop failure. And possibly much worse.

All we have to do to arrive at this scary place is nothing. All we have to do is not react as if this is an existential crisis. This is known as business as usual, being us, only more so. Because that’s what we do: We grow more and more and emit more and more every year. So that’s one radical scenario on the table.

Another radical scenario that I discuss in the book is what’s increasingly being taken seriously among the very serious people, and that is intervening in the climate system through radical technologies at a global scale, sometimes called geoengineering, to try to make those outcomes less disastrous, potentially making them more disastrous. We don’t know. You can’t find out before you do it, because you can’t build a model of the climate system to scale. Yes, I spent a fair bit of time hanging without with the would-be geoengineers, the smartest guys in the room, who are talking about fertilizing the oceans, pumping sulfur into the stratosphere, solving the problem of pollution with more pollution, dimming the sun. That’s pretty radical.

The good news is that it’s not too late to prevent these radical physical and engineering scenarios, but the way we do that at this point involves radical changes to our political and economic system. These are certainly considered radical, at least by current political standards. They involve questioning and really breaking, as I’ll argue, every rule in the free market playbook to which our leaders are still in thrall. I spend a lot of time in the book talking about the need to challenge this so-called free market ideology because I feel like we can spend a lot of time talking about various solutions, cap and trade versus cap and dividend, and we lose sight of the fact that actually none of it’s happening, certainly not at a national level, certainly not at a level that will get us anywhere near where we need to go. That has to do with the ideology that has swept our world. So the argument I make about why we have failed so miserably to rise to this challenge and the fact that we’ve failed is now beyond debate. Since our governments started meeting in 1990 to come up with a plan to reduce emissions, global emissions have gone up by 61%. That is not a good record.

There are all kind of theories that have been put forward to explain this inaction. We sometimes hear that it’s just human nature, that this crisis seems too far off and we’re hard-wired to respond only to immediate threats. This rationale doesn’t really ring true anymore because, of course, climate change is looking more and more like an immediate threat. It certainly looked like an immediate threat when Superstorm Sandy flooded Wall Street. Not that Wall Street has changed its behavior in any way. So
there is something else. And we know that we humans have responded to abstract threats before when our immediate safety was not threatened. We have this in our history. Then it must be something about us. I think a lot of us believe this, that it’s our generation that is too selfish. So this is one of the rationales.

The other rationale is just that it’s too complicated. You have to get all of these countries to come together and agree on a set of rules, and it’s just impossible. We hear this a lot. But, of course, our governments have come together and they have agreed on all kinds of things, whether it’s the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depletion, whether it’s arms treaties. But what about the creation of the World Trade Organization? What about a global trade architecture with binding rules that our governments have managed to build in this very same period when they were failing to deal with the climate crisis? So clearly we can cooperate and come together if the interests are aligned with those in power.

There are little bits of truth in all of these rationales and some I haven’t mentioned. But I think that we haven’t paid enough attention to one of the biggest obstacles to change, which is just bad timing, bad historical timing. By this I mean that scientists have known about climate change for a long time, but the point where we lost all plausible deniability, we the public, was really 1988. That was the year that James Hansen testified on Capitol Hill that he now had a high degree of certainty that there was a connection between emissions and warming. By that year 87% of Americans knew about global warming. And that year, when the editors of Time magazine needed to choose their Man of the Year, they decided not to give it to a man—they were still only giving it to men—but to Planet Earth. “Planet in Peril.” It was a really interesting essay that accompanied that cover story, which talked about how climate change really called into question the whole Western civilizational paradigm of domination-based thinking, the idea of the Earth as a machine, which it traced back to Francis Bacon. It was a really interesting essay to read in Time magazine. You could never imagine it appearing today.

Speaking to people who were involved in the movement at that time, there was really a feeling that this moment was the dawn of a new consciousness. Then the Berlin Wall collapsed the next year, 1989. This was when Francis Fukuyama declared history over, when the ideology that in most parts of the world that is called neoliberalism declared victory over all other economic models. And it was then exported around the world. 1988, the same year that Hansen testified, was the year that Canada and the U.S. signed the historic free trade agreement that was then expanded into NAFTA, which
became the model for future bilateral and multilateral trade deals. A few years later the World Trade Organization was formed. So you had these two parallel processes.

This was a problem. It was a problem not just because the global economy, as it was being called, that was created was a particularly high-emissions one, but because the ideology of neoliberalism had as its pillars privatization, deregulation, cuts to taxes, paid for with cuts to social services, now called austerity, never-ending austerity, all locked in through this architecture of free trade or investor rights deals. What I do in the book is show how each one of these pillars of this ideological project that so successfully spread around the world has stood in the way of what we need to do to respond
decisively to the climate threat.

I’ll just give you a few quick examples. A lot of this is obvious. Take austerity. In my lifetime all I have known of the public sphere is its dismantling. My parents’ generation built things, but since I have been a conscious adult, it has only been about stopping the cuts, stopping the attacks. We don’t get to build things anymore. Of course, this has reached catastrophic levels in this country, and particularly in Europe in the wake of the financial crisis, which has been passed on to the public. And you
see the direct clashes, because, of course, if we’re going to respond to climate change, we need to invest seriously and on a large scale in not just protecting the public sphere but reinventing it along the lines that Casey was talking about.

We see the clash when disaster strikes. You see it in this country during Hurricane Katrina, that clash between heavy weather and weak, neglected infrastructure, a government that doesn’t seem to be home, can’t seem to find New Orleans. We saw it during Superstorm Sandy, where you had these widely divergent experiences of a natural disaster—or not a natural disaster. If you have resources, you’re kind of okay. But if you’re in public housing that has been allowed to decay, the lights are out for weeks and weeks, no one shows up. It was a bunch of 20-somethings from Occupy Sandy, as it was called, who were doing front-line work, which was amazing. We did some filming of this makeshift health clinic that was started in the Rockaways. It was incredible. It was just heroic work. But the people were going,

Wait a minute, where is the government? Why are we doing this?

There were historic floods in England this year. It was very interesting to see the logic of austerity clash with what the public wanted in that moment, which was a forceful public response. This was a problem for David Cameron, sort of Mr. Austerity himself, because he had slashed the agency responsible for flood response, knowing that increased flooding is clearly going to be one of the impacts of climate change in Britain. Nonetheless, he had laid off more than 1,000 people. He canceled hundreds of flood defense programs. Another thousand jobs were on the chopping block. And people connected
the dots. Cameron was so panicked in this moment that he had to publicly say,

Money is no object. We will spend whatever it takes.

That’s just a glimpse of how, if we take this crisis seriously, this logic of austerity cannot hold. Our governments have to find the money. And that means going to where the money is. Part of the response is going after the fossil fuel companies, polluter pays. We’ll come back to that.

This is happening all over Europe. In Greece the fire trucks don’t have spare tires going into forest fires. Greece is a tinderbox. This is how austerity is playing out in that country. At the same time, in the name of exiting austerity, Greece is being told that they need to drill for oil and gas in the Ionian and Aegean Seas. Which is madness, because this is a country whose two major sectors are tourism and fisheries.

When I call the book Capitalism vs. the Climate, people say that’s divisive. But the thing is, capitalism is already waging war on the climate. The point of this is, I think there are different levels of denial. We talk a lot about there’s a right-wing denial, where it’s really obvious and it’s easy to laugh at the people at Fox News. But I think we all engage in our own versions of climate denial. One of the reasons why we have to stop is that if we look and let ourselves feel the depth of this crisis, we have some of the most powerful arguments we’ve ever had to argue for a saner economic system.

I’ll give you another example—free trade. A lot of people in this room have been involved in these battles. How many of you were part of the Battle of Seattle 15 years ago? A couple? A few? One of the things we’re finding is that we knew when we were fighting the World Trade Organization that this was a system that sacrificed workers’ rights and environmental rights in the name of short-term profits. But we did not know how right we were. Because what’s been happening in recent years is that some of the best climate policies are being successfully challenged in trade court.

I’ll give you an example from close to home for me. Ontario had the most ambitious emission reduction program in North America. It was lauded by many people in this country, including Al Gore, for its extremely ambitious plans to get 100% off coal by 2015. The Green Energy Act was introduced in 2009 in the midst of the economic crisis. It was introduced because of concern about climate change, but it was primarily introduced because of concerns about unemployment, because Ontario is an economy that is extremely reliant on manufacturing and, in particular, car manufacturing. Our auto sector was getting decimated by the fact that the big three auto makers were on their knees at this point, and it was easier to close Canadian plants than to close American plants when you’re going to the American government for a massive bailout, which is what was happening at that time. So there were huge numbers of layoffs in the manufacturing sector in Ontario.

So, very smartly, the Ontario Liberal government introduced the Green Energy Plan, which had these ambitious emission-reduction targets but also had very ambitious job-creation targets and required that any player, any company, but there were also non-companies—co-ops, communities, and so on—that wanted to benefit from Ontario’s new Feed-in Tariff Program had to 40% to 60% of their equipment in Ontario. So it was a job creation plan. It was about rebuilding our moribund manufacturing sector. I profiled in the book a company called Silfab, which was sort of like the poster child for how this was supposed to work. It’s a solar plant on the outskirts of Ontario that opened up in a closed-down auto parts factory. So it was the perfect symbol: old economy dying, new economy opening. All these workers who had lost their jobs at Chrysler and Magna, which is a big auto parts manufacturer, got jobs on the assembly line making solar panels for this new program, and 31,000 manufacturing jobs were created. All was going well.

But then Japan and the European Union challenged Ontario’s Green Energy Plan at the World Trade Organization and argued that that requirement that a certain percentage of the jobs remain local was discrimination against their companies, against European companies and Japanese companies. The WTO ruled in their favor, and Ontario lost, and rolled, over very, very quickly, in fact, in part because the Canadian government wasn’t about to fight for renewable energy when this is an extension of the oil and gas industry, as you may have noticed. We’re seeing more and more of these cases.

This is not an isolated case. The U.S. has challenged China’s renewable energy subsidies, India’s renewable energy subsidies. And it’s tremendously ironic, because you listen in on a summit like the one that just happened in New York, and it’s all about governments sort of pointing the finger at each over: You’re not doing enough; no, you’re not doing enough; I won’t lead; no, you lead. But in fact what these governments are doing is running to the World Trade Organization and trying to knock down each other’s windmills at precisely the moment when we need all of our governments to be rolling out the most ambitious plans they can, and to do it in a way that will get political buy-in.

This was about a just transition. This was about supporting a sector that was getting hit hard and having a just transition to the new economy. And we were told that’s not allowed. In the book I quote Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, who talks about how absurd it is that we are leaving the fate of the planet in the hands of what he calls “silly lawyers, who didn’t even understand the issue when they wrote the rules.” Nonetheless, it is happening.

The good news is we’re facing a whole flurry of new trade deals. That’s not good news in and of itself. The good news is that I think we’re starting to pay attention to trade again, after tuning it out for a long time. A lot of us are very concerned about TPP and the European deal and, specifically, how it is undermining the actions that we need to take on climate. I think that this, once again, is the best argument we have ever had against these deals. We cannot allow trade to trump the planet. There is no stronger argument than that. But that is precisely what these deals are doing. We can’t be afraid to use that.

Another pillar of the neoliberal era, of course, is privatization. I want to talk a little bit about how so many of our cities, states, provinces have sold off key sectors that are central to the energy transition that we need to enact is standing in the way.

Many of you have heard a lot about Germany’s transition to renewable energy. It’s a complicated case; it’s not all perfect. Nonetheless, it is definitely worth appreciating that a highly industrialized economy like Germany, that does not have a lot of sun, has managed in a decade and a half to go from 6% of its electricity coming from renewable energy to 25% coming from renewable energy, mostly wind and solar, most of it decentralized. This is a real success story and one that shows that when we want to and the political will is there, we can move quickly. We need those success stories.

One of the things we don’t hear about the German transition is that one of the things that has allowed Germany to transition as quickly as it has is that in hundreds of cities and towns, big cities as well as small towns, citizens have voted and decided democratically to take back control over their electricity grids from the private players that privatized them in the 1990s. They’re doing this because they want to be part of this energy transition, they want their power to come from clean energy, and private players are not willing to move fast enough. So they are deciding to take their energy back.

But it’s not only that. It’s also that they want the money from the power generation to stay in the community. So it’s addressing both the austerity crisis and climate change at the same time. The problem is not just that it’s dirty energy; it’s also that the money is just hemorrhaging from communities into shareholders’ pockets. That’s not acceptable either. It’s become a pro-democracy movement, an anti-austerity movement, and it’s a climate movement.

These are the types of paradigms that we need, I think, to win. It’s also starting to spread. It’s happening in this country, too. Boulder, Colorado is a fantastic example. Boulder, this green city, is very much like some of the cities in this region. It had this problem, which is, despite the fact that everyone biked and wore fleece, all of their energy was coming from coal. So they wanted to switch. They went to their local private energy provider, Excel Energy, and talked about how they wanted to switch to renewable energy and were basically shut down. At that point they started exploring taking their power back, taking their energy back, not because they were ideologically opposed to privatization. It was because they wanted to be part of a green energy transition, in line with their values, and the profit-driven interests of this company were standing in their way. They took that step. I think it is interesting that these aren’t ideological movements. These aren’t movements that are starting by saying, “We’re anti-privatization.” They’re movements saying, “We want to do something about climate change,” and discovering that they need to take on the logic of privatization in order to make that happen.

There are other ways of bringing in green energy, and I think there are a lot of examples of that in this region. But there is clearly a tight correlation between very ambitious renewable energy targets and keeping energy in public hands. We see examples of that in this country, too. Austin and Sacramento are two of the cities with the most ambitious emission-reduction targets. And they never sold off their energy. There are lots of public utilities that are producing dirty coal. But I think the point is that it’s easier for us to change our public utilities than it is for us to change for-profit enterprises.

I said Germany is “complicated.” One of the reasons it’s complicated is that while Angela Merkel has been willing to put in place some great incentives to encourage renewable energy, what she has not been willing to do is to say no to the fossil fuel industry. Coal is continuing to expand. Even though demand is dropping in Germany, the coal companies are just exporting that energy. Sound familiar? So it’s not a simple success story. Sometimes we tell ourselves we can do this all with market mechanisms and having the right incentives in place, but it’s clear that it has to be a combination of finding creative ways to say yes to what we want and bold ways of saying no to what we don’t want. Part of what has us stuck right now is that we have a leadership class globally that has really lost the knack of saying no to big companies. When they’re dangling big investment projects, they automatically say yes. You look at Obama. It has taken him now more than three years to just say no to the Keystone XL pipeline. I’m starting to think he’s going to leave office punting this decision.

The exciting thing is that, with our leaders failing to lead, failing to do what they need to do, there is the emergence of what some have started to call Blockadia, this grass roots regulatory structure, let’s just say, of communities. It’s been so powerful in this part of the world. I really do think that the fossil fuel industry did not know what they were in for when they decided to build so many tentacles through the Pacific Northwest. This in many ways is the flip side of the carbon boom that we’re in the midst of. Of course, the fossil fuel companies are doubling down. They’re building all sorts of new infrastructure. They’re doubling down on some of the dirtiest carbon sources. They have to build all this infrastructure, and it takes them into territories that are distinctly hostile. I used to say that the World Trade Organization built our coalitions for us. In many ways the fossil fuel companies are building our coalitions for us by the sheer ambition of their coal trains and their oil trains and their pipelines and their LNG terminals and the rest of it. That was what was so exciting about the climate march this past week, is that you saw that network that is place- based really coming together in the streets in common purpose.

In Canada one of the most exciting parts of the emergence of this fossil fuel resistance, as our friend Bill McKibben calls it, is the way in which it is building really powerful ties between non-native and native communities. Whenever there is a big resource battle, we see these connections. But there’s something new happening. We saw this really clearly with the emergence of Idle No More and all these resistance movements, whether it’s to the Cherry Point coal export terminal or the Northern Gateway pipeline through B.C. I think what more and more of us are starting to understand is that indigenous First Nations’ treaty rights and aboriginal title are the most powerful legal barrier to the plans to just flay this continent.

Those rights become more powerful when there are mass movements defending them and when they are embraced by whole societies. This is really starting to change, I think actually changing, the way we think as well as the way we fight. I think it is and it has to be about more than the extractive relationship to those rights, that those rights are useful to us because they help us protect our water, so we want to use those rights. That’s exactly the wrong way of thinking about this. These are rights that come out of a vision of how to live well that were hard-won and hard-protected, and they point us towards a nonextractive, regeneration-based way of living on this planet. That is the most hopeful and exciting part of this new wave of activism.

This can sound overwhelming. Anything about climate change can sound overwhelming. And it’s certainly easier to talk about changing light bulbs than changing the economy. But here’s what we need to remember: It’s not like we’re talking about an economy that is working beautifully except for the small matter of rising sea levels. We’re talking about allowing sea levels to rise in the name of protecting an economic system that is failing the vast majority of the people on this planet, with or without climate change. By responding robustly to climate change in line with what scientists are telling us, we have a once-in-a-century opportunity to solve some of our biggest and most intractable social and economic problems. We can create countless good unionized jobs in the next economy. Every dollar invested in renewable energy, efficiency, public transit creates six to eight times as many jobs as that dollar would create if it went into oil and gas infrastructure. Those jobs can rebuild our ailing public infrastructure, and that infrastructure will give us more livable cities, stronger communities, healthier bodies. We all know this.

We can find the money by making polluters pay, whether it’s the fossil fuel companies or the bloated defense companies or the financial speculators. To do any of this, of course, we must dramatically reduce the power of corporate money in politics. Everybody who is trying to get anything done in this country that is in any way vaguely progressive, whether it’s fighting private prisons or for gun control or universal health care, knows that money in politics is the single greatest barrier. The question that I’m left with is whether climate change can provide the big tent that we need to build a new kind of coalition, put us on a science-based deadline and tell us that we cannot afford to lose.

I think it can, and I’ll tell you why. The atmosphere is already our big tent. We are already under this big tent, and we have to start acting like it. We’re coming up on the fifteenth anniversary of the Battle of Seattle, when the streets of this city were choked with tear gas and flooded with hope because a mass coalition, a movement of movements, put the system of short-term corporate greed behind the World Trade Organization on trial. It disrupted the negotiations and emboldened internal dissent, and the talks broke down.

They never quite recovered. But after September 11th that movement broke apart. Some were spooked by the new war on dissent. Others turned their attention, understandably, to stopping a war and increased criminalization. But we stopped talking about the system underneath it all. Then three years ago this month, the Occupy movement sprung up and put corporate capitalism on trial once again, to draw the connections between the logic of deregulation and austerity, the inequality crises ravaging our communities. The whole world listened. I firmly believe that movements like that never die, they just go quiet for a little while. They learn, they change, and reemerge.

Now another movement is taking the stage, the climate justice movement. It’s made up of all these past movements and many more older ones, deeper ones—the civil rights movement, the indigenous rights sovereignty movement—for the deep shift in world view that we know this crisis is really about. Because underneath all of this is the truth that we’ve been avoiding: Climate change isn’t an issue to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It’s a civilizational wake-up call, a powerful message, spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinction, telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve. Thank you.


If we want the good life for all 7 billion people on this planet with sustainably grown food, sustainable use of precious raw materials, enough per capita wild spaces and rain forest, clean water, health care, and living space, what are your thoughts on the needs and benefits of voluntary population reduction? Do you think we can ignore that question?

I’m not sure what voluntary population reduction means. I wouldn’t say that population has nothing to do with the ecological crisis, but I think that we sometimes overplay it. Where population is growing fastest is in sub-Saharan Africa, and that is where emissions are lowest. If we want to deal with this crisis most effectively, we talk about consumption among the wealthiest people on the planet, not procreation among the poorest people on the planet.

Do you think climate change is the perfect topic to introduce a wider conversation about capitalism? I mean, in a sense we have the equivalent of right-wing climate denial on the left, capitalism denial, the desire to use euphemisms like “the free market” or “corporations” without asking the kind of wider questions that connect to things, like you say, about how elections are funded and those other things?

There is a larger constituency of liberals that really does not want to talk about capitalism than I anticipated. A lot of the criticism of the book has just been about the name. The subtitle I almost went with was “The Revolutionary Power of Climate Change.” As you heard from the talk, that’s the argument I’m making. But I do think that there is a core tension between our economic model and what our climate needs from us, that we have an economic model that is built on short-term expansion and we need to contract our use of resources. We don’t need to contract every part of our economy. We can grow other parts of our economy and we need to grow other parts of our economy that are low-carbon already, the parts of the economy that are going to make this transition possible. But at the same time, we do need to contract.

So we dance around. We really don’t like saying the word “capitalism,” particularly in this country. It’s easier to talk about growth than it is to talk about capitalism. I actually think focusing on growth is less helpful than talking about capitalism. Because in a lot of people’s minds, when you are talking about capitalism, you are talking about greed, you are talking about corporate greed, and you get closer to that; whereas if you talk about growth, then the first thing people think is that it’s all going to be contraction and it’s all going to be loss. That’s a very negative discussion to have. And isn’t true that it’s all about contraction. It’s really about how we manage our economy.

I’d just like to say I always enjoy these talks, but it sometimes feels like it’s kind of preaching to the choir. I just wanted to know what your thoughts are on disseminating all the information that you have, that you presented tonight, to people who mainly get their information from news outlets that it goes against their financial interest to report on all these topics. They might have corporate ties to fossil fuels, so they won’t want to report on the climate march, they won’t want to report on any of these issues, and we will continue to maintain the status quo. So just how you think that this movement is best going to be spread out beyond the people who already know about it.

I feel like that is starting to happen. And some of it is happening in a more old-fashioned way. The climate march in New York was an extraordinary exercise in popular education, really old-fashioned community organizing. It was an incredibly diverse march. It did not look like the choir. It mobilized all kinds of communities that are normally left out of the environmental movement. That was not done with the help of any corporate media. That was really legwork. And it was that hard, old- fashioned organizing work of building bridges across different constituencies, doing popular education. I think we need to return to some of that, just teach-ins, just basic popular education. A lot of people don’t participate in the climate discussion because it seems really, really wonky and they’re afraid of making a mistake. You’ve got the science side, the policy side, the UN. There’s a whole bunch of worlds that have their own language and their own jargon. So just unpacking it for people and creating context where they’re not afraid to make a mistake is really important.

But I don’t know that this is about going through corporate media at this stage. There is some of that. Like there was Years of Living Dangerously and that kind of work. But I’m not sure that that’s what builds a movement. I think the movement building is when people see the connections with their daily lives, and it comes from trusted sources. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we reach people who watch Fox News. We actually have a lot more work just building a broad, diverse, progressive movement and building bridges between the various constituencies in that world before we worry about reaching the climate deniers.

If you could send some advice to yourself back in time when you were first writing No Logo, what would you say?

I didn’t really know anything then. Coming back to the last question about sort of preaching to the choir, I think one of the things that I’ve learned is just how nourishing it is to be in a movement. I think we kind of belittle it when we talk about it as just preaching to the choir, as if this work doesn’t matter. But when you’re taking on really powerful forces, it can be pretty brutalizing. And if you’re going to do it, and if you’re going to immerse yourselves in some of the worst of what humans are capable of, which anybody who is involved in social justice work is doing, you also need to counterbalance that by being in community and valuing that community and supporting each other.

The antinuclear movement has not really been brought up that much in the talks about climate change. I just want to bring up nuclear power and nuclear weapons, which are one and the same. The question is this: We have mining with nuclear, we have uranium mining, we use coal for the spent fuel. I just wanted to say that I find it important to include all of these things within talks on climate change. And thank you for all the work that you do.

How do we sometimes get over the hypocrisy in fighting for a fossil fuel-free world when you can’t really get away from fossil fuel —when you go to the grocery store and you go home to your polyester sheets and the plastic in everything you buy, and even a lot of people who went to the climate protest flew there? How do we get over this kind of conflict within ourselves, when we use fossil fuel every day? We don’t want to, but you really can’t get away from it.

It’s a great question. In some ways I think that we—we, the environmental movement—overemphasized the individual actions at the expense of the big, systemic changes that we need. It was all about recycling and carbon offsetting and turning your personal life into a low- carbon piece of performance art. A lot of it was quite classist, too, because there are so many communities that have no good transit options, where people are so overworked as well that people are having to make convenience-based decisions that are about low cost but also about zero time. This is what our culture does to people. And this idea that it’s about being perfect and green and buying more green stuff was super alienating to a lot of people, and I think was part of why the climate movement was so homogenous, meaning white and middle-class.

But there’s something really key. I don’t think we should let ourselves off the hook; we should all try to bring our actions in line with our values. But I also think that we should all embrace our inner hypocrites and stop playing gotcha. Because if you need to be pure, if you need to be fossil-free in order to fight fossil fuels, that’s a great way of having a really small movement.

How can your organization lead in inspiring voter registration in all the places where we have too low of voter registration and to teach America a new story about finding the right candidates to run for office and to win for office? Because the stories that we’re told right now have to do with money. And here we have a situation where we have the right person running against somebody who needs to be out of office.

I would just add that it’s about getting involved in politics at every level, including at the local level, where maybe it’s a little bit easier to break through. I would be remiss if I left Seattle without just saying how will critically inspiring it was for everybody to watch the $15 minimum wage victory. That kind of ambition is really contagious and inspiring. All eyes were on you.

The Alberta tar sands are so destructive, but the cash flow is so overwhelming that there’s no control possible. Do you have any good news about the Alberta tar sands?

Yes, I do. I think the best piece of news we’ve had so far is that Stat Oil, which is the big Norwegian oil company, a huge player in the tar sands, announced the suspension of a multibillion-dollar tar sands investment because—one of the reasons cited was uncertainty about pipeline capacity. That is the strategy of cutting off the arteries that we’ve all been involved in.

As you’ve pointed out, the indigenous nations are making this region a choke point of fossil fuel shipping, but Swinomish and other tribes are also working with historically hostile local governments on climate change adaptation. Putting this book together with your last book, about disaster capitalism, Have you seen people preparing for these inevitable storms, disasters, power outages that are coming in a way to position community organizations in a place where we can instill disaster cooperativism and ways of bringing together communities and using that to also help build those bridges you’re talking about?

That is a great, great question. It’s certainly was a big part of the discussion post Sandy in New York, just that the communities that fared best were communities where people knew their neighbors, weren’t afraid, because there was a lot of fear, too, like all this fear of looting, and just this understanding that this social fabric that we’re able to build with one another is important. Yes, seawalls are important, but relationships are even more important. Checking in on one another when communication systems break down, as they inevitably do, that we still know each other’s names and where to find each other and knock on each other’s doors. This has to be understood as part of disaster response. So, yes, I think we need a really broad understanding that responding to climate change isn’t just about rebuilding the sort of public sphere in the sense of big state. It’s about reclaiming the whole idea of the commons, of the public, of the communal at every level against the attacks and the idea that we are nothing but atomized individuals and there’s no such thing as society. That’s another piece of the big war of ideas that we need to be fighting and also building. In that sense a farmers’ market is disaster response. Anything we do to strengthen our communities and get to know one another and build those relationships of trust is part of preparing for the storms ahead.

I realize that I didn’t respond at all on the nuclear question, and I do think it is an important point on this, because it’s important to remember that this vision of responding to climate change by building a more equal society is by no means the only way of responding to climate change. There is a shock doctrine scenario that is very clear. That is not just the profiteering from disaster, but it is also the positioning of these big engineering fixes that continue to put communities at risk. So more and more there is talk about replacing fossil fuels with nuclear, positioning GMO crops as climate-ready, climate-smart, and attacking small farming as unrealistic and some agrarian fantasy, which is one of the ways I’m getting attacked at the moment. A few years down the road it will be the geo-engineering fix being presented as more realistic than any of the stuff that we’re talking about.

That’s why I think it really is about identifying the values that we want to govern us as we move forward together. Even more important than identifying individual policies is identifying those values. One of the values that I think we need to put at the front of our movements is that the people who have been on the front lines of our toxic extractive economy need to be first in line to benefit directly from the next economy.

About the no-new-carbon infrastructure, drawing the line. This is the Keystone principle. I would say we need to extend that to the principle of there being no more sacrifice zones. We know that we can power ourselves without sacrificial people and sacrificial places. I think that that’s really important to the nuclear discussions. Who are we asking to eat the risk for these technologies? And if it’s not us, we have no right to ask it of anyone.

See and hear an interview with Naomi Klein at the following Democracy Now posts:

  1. Capitalism vs. the Climate: Naomi Klein on Need for New Economic Model to Address Ecological Crisis
  2. Naomi Klein on the People’s Climate March & the Global Grassroots Movement Fighting Fossil Fuels
  3. Naomi Klein on Motherhood, Geoengineering, Climate Debt & the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement

Here is an excerpt from her book:
Naomi Klein: “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” (Book Excerpt).

Other Alternative Radio Naomi Klein programs:
Economic Warfare: From Argentina to Iraq
No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies
Debacle in Iraq
The Shock Doctrine

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977


Posted in Big picture, Climate crisis, Corporate bonding and domination, Economic injustice, Liberal ineffectiveness | Leave a comment

Captain Ahab and U.S. empire

Chris Hedges
Missoula, MT
3 February 2014

The demonic Captain Ahab in Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick represents a quest for power and domination that is a death wish. Hubris will doom Ahab and his Pequod crew, all perish except for Ishmael. Is there a larger lesson to be learned? Is the United States much different? The U.S. with its obsessive drive for control of oil and other resources, its relentless hunger for profits, its garrisoning the globe with military bases, its arrogant disregard for the environment, is on the same suicidal path as Ahab. Washington’s policies, under both political parties, are always imbued with benevolence and noble intentions. It is innocent of imperialistic designs. Freedom and democracy are its goals. A well-disciplined media and intellectual class rarely challenge these embedded assumptions. We continue to ignore all warnings as to the destruction we are wreaking on the planet.

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Chris Hedges is an award-winning journalist who has covered wars in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Central America. He writes a weekly column for and is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute. He is the author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, American Fascists, Empire of Illusion, Death of the Liberal Class, The World As It Is, and, with Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.

You can listen to Chris Hedges speak for himself (an mp3 clip) here.
You can get a printable version of this talk (a PDF file) here.

The most prescient portrait of the American character and our ultimate fate as a species is found in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville makes our murderous obsessions, our hubris, violent impulses, moral weakness, and inevitable self-destruction visible in his chronicle of a whaling voyage. He is our foremost oracle. He is to us what William Shakespeare was to Elizabethan England or Fyodor Dostoyevsky to czarist Russia.

Our country is given shape in the form of the ship, the Pequod, named after the Indian tribe exterminated in 1638 by the Puritans and their Native American allies. The ship’s 30-man crew—there were 30 states in the Union when Melville wrote the novel—is a mixture of races and creeds. The object of the hunt is a massive white whale, Moby Dick, which in a previous encounter maimed the ship’s captain, Ahab, by dismembering one of his legs. The self-destructive fury of the quest, much like that of the one we are on, assures the Pequod’s destruction. And those on the ship, on some level, know they are doomed— just as many of us know that a consumer culture based on corporate profit, limitless exploitation and the continued extraction of fossil fuels is doomed.

“If I had been downright honest with myself,” Ishmael admits,

I would have seen very plainly in my heart that I did but half fancy being committed this way to so long a voyage, without once laying my eyes on the man who was to be the absolute dictator of it, so soon as the ship sailed out upon the open sea. But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.

Our financial system—like our participatory democracy—is a mirage. The Federal Reserve purchases $85 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds—much of it worthless subprime mortgages—each month. It has been artificially propping up the government and Wall Street like this for five years. It has loaned trillions of dollars at virtually no interest to banks and firms that make money—because wages are kept low—by lending it to us at staggering interest rates that can climb to as high as 30 percent. Or our corporate oligarchs hoard the money or gamble with it in an overinflated stock market. Estimates put the looting by banks and investment firms of the U.S. Treasury at between $15 trillion and $20 trillion. But none of us know. The figures are not public. And the reason this systematic looting will continue until collapse is that our economy would go into a tailspin without this giddy infusion of free cash.

The ecosystem is at the same time disintegrating. Scientists from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, a few days ago, issued a new report that warned that the oceans are changing faster than anticipated and increasingly becoming inhospitable to life. The oceans, of course, have absorbed much of the excess CO2 and heat from the atmosphere. This absorption is rapidly warming and acidifying ocean waters. This is compounded, the report noted, by increased levels of de-oxygenation from nutrient runoffs from farming and climate change. The scientists called these effects a “deadly trio” that when combined is creating changes in the seas that are unprecedented in the planet’s history. This is their language, not mine. The scientists wrote that each of the earth’s five known mass extinctions was preceded by at least one part of the “deadly trio”— acidification, warming, and de-oxygenation. They warned that “the next mass extinction” of sea life is already under way, the first in some 55 million years. Or look at the recent research from the University of Hawaii that says global warming is now inevitable, it cannot be stopped but at best slowed, and that over the next 50 years the earth will heat up to levels that will make whole parts of the planet uninhabitable. Tens of millions of people will be displaced and millions of species will be threatened with extinction. The report casts doubt that cities on or near a coast such as New York or London will endure.

Yet we, like Ahab and his crew, rationalize our collective madness. All calls for prudence, for halting the march toward economic, political and environmental catastrophe, for sane limits on carbon emissions, are ignored or ridiculed. Even with the flashing red lights before us, the increased droughts, rapid melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, monster tornadoes, vast hurricanes, crop failures, floods, raging wildfires and soaring temperatures, we bow slavishly before hedonism and greed and the enticing illusion of limitless power, intelligence and prowess.

The corporate assault on culture, journalism, education, the arts, and critical thinking has left those who speak this truth marginalized and ignored, frantic Cassandras who are viewed as slightly unhinged and depressingly apocalyptic. We are consumed by a mania for hope, which our corporate masters lavishly provide, at the expense of truth.

Friedrich Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil holds that only a few people have the fortitude to look in times of distress into what he calls the molten pit of human reality. Most studiously ignore the pit. Artists and philosophers, for Nietzsche, are consumed, however, by an insatiable curiosity, a quest for truth and desire for meaning. They venture down into the bowels of the molten pit. They get as close as they can before the flames and heat drive them back. This intellectual and moral honesty, Nietzsche wrote, comes with a cost. Those singed by the fire of reality become “burnt children,” he wrote, eternal orphans in empires of illusion.

Decayed civilizations always make war on independent intellectual inquiry, art, and culture for this reason. They do not want the masses to look into the pit. They condemn and vilify the “burnt people”—Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Cornel West. They feed the human addiction for illusion, happiness and hope. They peddle the fantasy of eternal material progress. They urge us to build images of ourselves to worship. They insist—and this is the argument of globalization—that our voyage is, after all, decreed by natural law. We have surrendered our lives to corporate forces that ultimately serve systems of death. We ignore and belittle the cries of the burnt people. And, if we do not swiftly and radically reconfigure our relationship to each other and the ecosystem, microbes look set to inherit the earth.

Clive Hamilton in his Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change describes a dark relief that comes from accepting that “catastrophic climate change is virtually certain.” This obliteration of “false hopes,” he says, requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means that those we love, including our children, are almost certainly doomed to insecurity, misery, and suffering within a few decades, if not a few years, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth—intellectually and emotionally—and rise up to resist the forces that are destroying us.

The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting, and polluting the earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury—as well as unrivaled military and economic power for a small, global elite—are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year (2012) in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward.

Complex civilizations have a bad habit of ultimately destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies, Charles L. Redman in Human Impact on Ancient Environments, and Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet will go with us. There will, with this final collapse, be no new lands left to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate. The long struggle between the human species and the earth will conclude with the remnants of the human species learning a painful lesson about unrestrained greed, hubris, and idolatry.

Collapse comes throughout human history to complex societies not long after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity.

One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun,

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote.

That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress calls the “progress trap.” We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion, Wright notes, that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature.

And as the collapse becomes palpable, if human history is any guide, we, like past societies in distress, will retreat into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist beliefs in a god or gods who will come back to earth and save us. The Christian right provides a haven for this escapism. These cults perform absurd rituals to make it all go away, giving rise to a religiosity that peddles collective self-delusion and magical thinking. Crisis cults spread rapidly among Native American societies in the later part of the 19th century as the buffalo herds and the last remaining tribes were slaughtered. The Ghost Dance held out the hope that all the horrors of white civilization—the railroads, the murderous cavalry units, the timber merchants, the mine speculators, the hated tribal agencies, the barbed wire, the machine guns, even the white man himself—would disappear. And our psychological hard wiring is no different.

In our decline, hatred becomes our primary lust, our highest form of patriotism. We deploy vast resources to hunt down jihadists and terrorists, real and phantom. We destroy our civil society in the name of a war on terror. We persecute those, from Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden, who expose the dark machinations of power. We believe, because we have externalized evil, that we can purify the earth. And we are blind to the evil within us.

Melville’s description of Ahab is a description of the bankers, corporate boards, politicians, television personalities, and generals who through the power of propaganda fill our heads with seductive images of glory and lust for wealth and power. We are consumed with self-induced obsessions that spur us toward self-annihilation.

“All my means are sane,” Ahab says, “my motive and my object mad.”

Ahab, as the historian Richard Slotkin points out in his book Regeneration Through Violence, is

the true American hero, worthy to be captain of a ship whose “wood could only be American.”

Melville offers us a vision, one that D. H. Lawrence later understood, of the inevitable fatality of white civilization brought about by our ceaseless lust for material progress, imperial expansion, white supremacy, and exploitation of nature.

Melville, who had been a sailor on clipper ships and whalers, was keenly aware that the wealth of industrialized societies was stolen by force from the wretched of the earth. All the authority figures on the ship are white men—Ahab, Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb. The hard, dirty work, from harpooning to gutting the carcasses of the whales, is the task of the poor, mostly men of color. Melville saw how European plundering of indigenous cultures from the 16th to the 19th centuries, coupled with the use of African slaves as a workforce to replace the natives, was the engine that enriched Europe and the United States. The Spaniards’ easy seizure of the Aztec and Inca gold following the massive die-off from smallpox and other diseases among native populations set in motion five centuries of unchecked economic and environmental plunder. Karl Marx and Adam Smith pointed to the huge influx of wealth from the Americas as having made possible the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism. The Industrial Revolution also equipped the industrialized state with technologically advanced weapons systems, turning us into the most efficient killers on the planet.

Ahab, when he first appears on the quarterdeck after being in his cabin for the first few days of the voyage, holds up a doubloon, an extravagant gold coin, and promises it to the crew member who first spots the white whale. He knows that

the permanent constitutional condition of the manufactured man … is sordidness.

And he plays to this sordidness. The whale becomes like everything in the capitalist world a commodity, a source of personal profit. A murderous greed, one that Starbuck, Ahab’s first mate, denounces as “blasphemous,” grips the crew. Ahab’s obsession infects the ship.

“I see in Moby Dick outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it,” Ahab tells Starbuck.

That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.

Ahab conducts a dark Mass, a Eucharist of violence and blood, on the deck with the crew. He orders the men to circle around him. He makes them drink from a flagon that is passed from man to man, filled with draughts “hot as Satan’s hoof.” Ahab tells the harpooners to cross their lances before him. The captain grasps the harpoons and anoints the ships’ harpooners—Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo—his “three pagan kinsmen.” He orders them to detach the iron sections of their harpoons and fills the sockets “with the fiery waters from the pewter.” “

Drink, ye harpooneers! Drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow—Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!

And with the crew bonded to him in his infernal quest he knows that Starbuck is helpless “amid the general hurricane.” “Starbuck now is mine,” Ahab says, “cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.” Melville writes,

The honest eye of Starbuck fell downright.

The ship, described as a hearse, was painted black. It was adorned with gruesome trophies of the hunt, festooned with the huge teeth and bones of sperm whales. It was, Melville writes,

a cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.

The fires used to melt the whale blubber at night turned the Pequod into a “red hell.”

Our own raging fires, leaping up from our oil refineries and the explosions of our ordnance across the Middle East, bespeak our Stygian heart. And in our mad pursuit we ignore the suffering of others, just as Ahab does when he refuses to help the captain of a passing ship who is frantically searching for his son, who has fallen overboard.

Ahab has not only the heated rhetoric of persuasion; he is master of a terrifying internal security force on the ship, the five

dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air.

Ahab’s secret, private whaleboat crew, who emerge from the bowels of the ship well into the voyage, keeps the rest of the ship in abject submission. The art of propaganda and the use of brutal coercion, the mark of tyranny, define our lives just as they mark those on Melville’s ship. The novel is the chronicle of the last days of any civilization.

And yet Ahab is no simple tyrant. Melville toward the end of the novel gives us two glimpses into the internal battle between Ahab’s maniacal hubris and his humanity. Ahab, too, has a yearning for love. He harbors regrets over his deformed life. The black cabin boy Pip is the only crew member who evokes any tenderness in the captain. Ahab is aware of this tenderness. He fears its power. Pip functions as the Fool did in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Ahab warns Pip of Ahab. “Lad, lad,” says Ahab,

I tell thee thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him. There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady. Like cures like; and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health. If thou speakest thus to me much more, Ahab’s purpose keels up in him. I tell thee no; it cannot be.

A few pages later,

untottering Ahab stood forth in the clearness of the morn; lifting his splintered helmet of a brow to the fair girl’s forehead of heaven. From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.

Starbuck approaches him. Ahab, for the only time in the book, is vulnerable. He speaks to Starbuck of his

forty years on the pitiless sea! The desolation of solitude it has been. Why this strife of the chase? Why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? How the richer or better is Ahab now?

He thinks of his young wife—“I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck”—and of his little boy:

About this time—yes, it is his noon nap now—the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again.

Ahab’s thirst for dominance, vengeance, and destruction, however, overpowers these faint regrets of lost love and thwarted compassion. Hatred wins. “What is it,” Ahab finally asks,

what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time.

Melville knew that physical courage and moral courage are distinct. One can be brave on a whaling ship or a battlefield, yet a coward when called on to stand up to human evil. Starbuck elucidates this peculiar division. The first mate is tormented by his complicity in what he foresees as Ahab’s “impious end.” Starbuck,

while generally abiding firm in the conflict with seas, or winds, or whales, or any of the ordinary irrational horrors of the world, yet cannot withstand those more terrific, because spiritual terrors, which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged and mighty man.

And so we plunge forward in our doomed quest to master the forces that will finally smite us. Those who see where we are going too often lack the fortitude to actually rebel. Mutiny was the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew. It is our only salvation. But moral cowardice turns us into hostages.

I am reading and rereading the debates among some of the great radical thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries about the mechanisms of social change. These debates were not academic. They were frantic searches for the triggers of revolt. Lenin placed his faith in a violent uprising, a professional, disciplined revolutionary vanguard freed from moral constraints and, like Marx, in the inevitable emergence of the worker’s state. Proudhon insisted that gradual change would be accomplished as enlightened workers took over production and educated and converted the rest of the proletariat. Bakunin predicted the catastrophic breakdown of the capitalist order, something we are likely to witness in our lifetimes, and new autonomous worker federations rising up out of the chaos. Kropotkin, like Proudhon, believed in an evolutionary process that would hammer out the new society. Emma Goldman, along with Kropotkin, came to be very wary of both the efficacy of violence and the revolutionary potential of the masses. “The mass,” Goldman wrote bitterly toward the end of her life in echoing Marx,

clings to its masters, loves the whip, and is the first to cry Crucify!

The revolutionists of history counted on a mobilized base of enlightened industrial workers. The building blocks of revolt, they believed, relied on the tool of the general strike, the ability of workers to cripple the mechanisms of production. Strikes could be sustained with the support of political parties, strike funds and union halls. Workers without these support mechanisms had to replicate the infrastructure of parties and unions if they wanted to put prolonged pressure on the bosses and the state. But now, with the decimation of the U.S. manufacturing base, along with the dismantling of our unions and opposition parties, we will have to search for different instruments of rebellion.

We must develop a revolutionary theory that is not reliant on the industrial or agrarian muscle of workers. Most manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and, of those that remain, few are unionized. Our family farms have been destroyed by agro-businesses. Monsanto and its Faustian counterparts on Wall Street rule. They are steadily poisoning our lives and rendering us powerless. The corporate leviathan, which is global, is freed from the constraints of a single nation-state or government. Corporations are beyond regulation or control. Politicians are too anemic, or more often too corrupt, to stand in the
way of the accelerating corporate destruction. This makes our struggle different from revolutionary struggles in industrial societies in the past. Our revolt will look more like what erupted in the less industrialized Slavic republics, Russia, Spain, and China and uprisings led by a disenfranchised rural and urban working class and peasantry in the liberation movements that swept through Africa and Latin America. The dispossessed working poor, along with unemployed college graduates and students, unemployed journalists, artists, lawyers and teachers, will form our movement. This is why the fight for a higher minimum wage is crucial to uniting service workers with the alienated college-educated sons and daughters of the old middle class. Bakunin, unlike Marx, considered déclassé intellectuals essential for successful revolt.

It is not the poor who make revolutions. It is those who conclude that they will not be able, as they once expected, to rise economically and socially. This consciousness is part of the self-knowledge of service workers and fast-food workers. It is grasped by the swelling population of college graduates caught in a vise of low-paying jobs and obscene amounts of debt. These two groups, once united, will be our primary engines of revolt. Much of the urban poor has been crippled and in many cases broken by a rewriting of laws, especially drug laws, that has permitted courts, probation officers, parole boards and police to randomly seize poor people of color, especially African-American men, without just cause and lock them in cages for years. In many of our most impoverished urban centers—our internal colonies, as Malcolm X called them—mobilization, at least at first, will be difficult. The urban poor are already in chains. These chains are being readied for the rest of us.

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal bread,

Anatole France commented acidly.

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan examined 100 years of violent and nonviolent resistance movements in their book Why Civil Resistance Works. They concluded that nonviolent movements succeed twice as often as violent uprisings. Violent movements work primarily in civil wars or in ending foreign occupations, they found. Nonviolent movements that succeed appeal to those within the power structure, especially the police and civil servants, who are cognizant of the corruption and decadence of the power elite and are willing to abandon them. And we only need 1 to 5 percent of the population actively working for the overthrow of a system, history has shown, to bring down even the most ruthless totalitarian structures. It always works on two tracks—building alternative structures such as public banks to free ourselves from control and finding mechanisms to halt the machine.

The most important dilemma facing us is not ideological. It is logistical. The security and surveillance state has made its highest priority the breaking of any infrastructure that might spark widespread revolt. The state knows the tinder is there. It knows that the continued unraveling of the economy and the effects of climate change make popular unrest inevitable. It knows that as underemployment and unemployment doom at least a quarter of the U.S. population, perhaps more, to perpetual poverty, and as unemployment benefits are scaled back, as schools close, as the middle class withers away, as pension funds are looted by hedge fund thieves, and as the government continues to let the fossil fuel industry ravage the planet, the future will increasingly be one of open conflict. This battle against the corporate state, right now, is primarily about infrastructure. We need an infrastructure to build revolt. The corporate state is determined to deny us one.

The state, in its internal projections, has a vision of the future that is as dystopian as mine. But the state, to protect itself, lies. Politicians, corporations, the public relations industry, the entertainment industry and our ridiculous television pundits speak as if we can continue to build a society based on limitless growth, profligate consumption and fossil fuel. They feed the collective mania for hope at the expense of truth. Their public vision is self-delusional, a form of collective psychosis. The corporate state, meanwhile, is preparing privately for the world it knows is actually coming. It is cementing into place a police state, one that includes the complete evisceration of our most basic civil liberties and the militarization of the internal security apparatus, as well as wholesale surveillance of the citizenry.

Moby Dick rams and sinks the Pequod. The waves swallow up Ahab.

As the planet begins to convulse with fury, as the senseless greed of limitless capitalist expansion implodes the global economy, as our civil liberties are eviscerated in the name of national security, shackling us to an interconnected security and surveillance state that stretches from Moscow to Istanbul to New York, how shall we endure and resist?

Our hope lies in the human imagination. It was the human imagination that permitted African-Americans during slavery and the Jim Crow era to transcend their physical condition. It was the human imagination that sustained Sitting Bull and Black Elk as their land was seized and their cultures were broken. And it was the human imagination that allowed the survivors in the Nazi death camps to retain the power of the sacred. It is the imagination that makes possible transcendence. Chants, work songs, spirituals, the blues, poetry, dance and art converged under slavery to nourish and sustain this imagination. These were the forces that, as Ralph Ellison wrote, “we had in place of freedom.” The oppressed would be the first—for they know their fate—to admit that on a rational level such a notion is absurd, but they also know that it is only through the imagination that they survive. Jewish inmates in Auschwitz reportedly put God on trial for the Holocaust and then condemned God to death. A rabbi stood after the verdict to lead the evening prayers.

African-Americans and Native Americans, for centuries, had little control over their destinies. Forces of bigotry and violence kept them subjugated by whites. Suffering, for the oppressed, was tangible. Death was a constant companion. And it was only their imagination, as William Faulkner noted at the end of The Sound and the Fury, that permitted them—unlike the novel’s white Compson family—to “endure.”

The theologian James H. Cone captures this in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone says that for oppressed blacks the cross was a

paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.

Cone continues: That God could “make a way out of no way” in Jesus’ cross was truly absurd to the intellect, yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk. Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross. Christ crucified manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life—that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the “troubles of this world,” no matter how great and painful their suffering. Believing this paradox, this absurd claim of faith, was only possible in humility and repentance. There was no place for the proud and the mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others. The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.

Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression “a sublime madness in the soul.” Niebuhr wrote that

nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.”

This sublime madness, as Niebuhr understood, is dangerous, but it is vital. Without it, “truth is obscured.” And Niebuhr also knew that traditional liberalism was a useless force in moments of extremity. Liberalism, Niebuhr said,

lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history.

The prophets in the Hebrew Bible had this sublime madness. The words of the Hebrew prophets, as Abraham Heschel wrote, were

a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.

The prophet, because he saw and faced an unpleasant reality, was, as Heschel wrote, “compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what his heart expected.”

The poet Leon Staff wrote from the Warsaw ghetto:

Even more than bread we now need poetry, in a time when it seems that it is not needed at all.

It is only those who harness their imagination, and through their imagination find the courage to peer into the molten pit, who can minister to the suffering of those around them. It is only they who can find the physical and psychological strength to resist. Resistance is carried out not for its success, but because by resisting in every way possible we affirm life. And those who resist in the years ahead will be those who are infected with this “sublime madness.” As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the only morally reliable people are not those who say “this is wrong” or “this should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.” They know that as Immanuel Kant wrote:

If justice perishes, human life on earth has lost its meaning.

And this means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. We must at once see and act, and given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair, not by reason, but by faith.

“One of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt,” Camus wrote.

It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity. It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.

“The people noticed that Crazy Horse was queerer than ever,” Black Elk said in remembering the final days of the wars of Western expansion. He went on to say of the great Sioux warrior:

He hardly ever stayed in the camp. People would find him out alone in the cold, and they would ask him to come home with them. He would not come, but sometimes he would tell the people what to do. People wondered if he ate anything at all. Once my father found him out alone like that, and he said to my father: “Uncle, you have noticed me the way I act. But do not worry; there are caves and holes for me to live in, and out here the spirits may help me. I am making plans for the good of my people.”

Homer, Dante, Beethoven, Melville, Dostoevsky, Proust, Joyce, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson and James Baldwin, along with artists such as the sculptor David Smith, the photographer Diane Arbus and the blues musician Charley Patton, all had it. It is the sublime madness that lets one sing, as bluesman Ishman Bracey did in Hinds County, Miss., “I’ve been down so long, Lawd, down don’t worry me.” And yet in the mists of the imagination also lie the absurdity and certainty of divine justice:

I feel my hell a-risin’, a-risin’ every day;
I feel my hell a-risin’, a-risin’ every day;
Someday it’ll burst this levee and wash the whole wide world away.

Shakespeare’s greatest heroes and heroines— Prospero, Antony, Juliet, Viola, Rosalind, Hamlet, Cordelia and Lear—all have this sublime madness. King Lear, who through suffering and affliction, through human imagination, is finally able to see, warns us all that unbridled human passion and unchecked hubris mean the suicide of the species. “It will come,” Albany says in King Lear.

Humanity must perforce prey on itself, Like monsters of the deep.

It was the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca that sustained the republicans fighting the fascists in Spain. Music, dance, drama, art, song, painting have been the fire and drive of resistance movements. The rebel units in El Salvador when I covered the war there always traveled with musicians and theater troupes. Art, as Emma Goldman pointed out, has the power to make ideas felt. Goldman noted that when Andrew Undershaft, a character in George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara, said poverty is “[t]he worst of crimes” and “All the other crimes are virtues beside it,” his impassioned declaration elucidated the cruelty of class warfare more effectively than Shaw’s socialist tracts. The degradation of education into vocational training for the corporate state, the ending of state subsidies for the arts and journalism, the hijacking of these disciplines by corporate sponsors, sever the population from understanding, self-actualization and transcendence. In aesthetic terms the corporate state seeks to crush beauty, truth and imagination. This is a war waged by all totalitarian systems.

Culture, real culture, is radical and transformative. It is capable of expressing what lies deep within us. It gives words to our reality. It makes us feel as well as see. It allows us to empathize with those who are different or oppressed. It reveals what is happening around us. It honors mystery. James Baldwin wrote,

The role of the artist, then, precisely, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through the vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

Ultimately, the artist and the revolutionary function as they function, and pay whatever dues they must pay behind it because they are both possessed by a vision, and they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it. Otherwise, they could never endure, much less embrace, the lives they are compelled to lead.

I do not know if we can build a better society. I do not even know if we will survive as a species. But I know these corporate forces have us by the throat. And they have my children by the throat. I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. And this is a fight, which, in the face of the overwhelming forces against us, requires us to embrace this sublime madness, to find in acts of rebellion the embers of life, an intrinsic meaning that lies outside of certain success. It is to at once grasp reality and then refuse to allow this reality to paralyze us. It is, and I say this to people of all creeds or no creeds, to make an absurd leap of faith, to believe, despite all empirical evidence around us, that good always draws to it the good, that the fight for life always goes somewhere—we do not know where; the Buddhists call it karma—and in these acts we sustain our belief in a better world, even if we cannot see one emerging around us.

Other AR Chris Hedges programs:
• Corporate Coup d’Etat
• Inverted Totalitarianism
• Empire Abroad, Tyranny at Home
• Death of the Liberal Class
• Empire of Illusion
• American Fascists: The Radical Christian Right
• War as an Addiction

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P .O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone: (800) 444-1977

Posted in Big picture, Climate crisis, Economic injustice, Fossil besmirchment, Liberal ineffectiveness, The American Dream | Leave a comment

Unmasking the NSA

Glenn Greenwald
Town Hall
Seattle, WA
17 June 2014

Imagine a gigantic vacuum cleaner scooping up all electronic communications. That’s what the National Security Agency does. Think you are safe from NSA snooping? That you can hide behind clever passwords? Think again. The Agency has the capability to generate one billion password guesses per second. On top of that it can remotely activate your cell phone and computer and use them as eavesdropping and tracking devices. The NSA is at the center of a system of monitoring and control beyond the wildest dreams of the greatest tyrants in history. The so-called War on Terror has unleashed a war on civil liberties. White House claims of national security justify massive abuses. We have to give up freedoms in order to preserve them we are told. But hey, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about.

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Glenn Greenwald broke the story in The Guardian of Washington’s widespread electronic dragnet. His exclusive interview with NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden was an international media sensation. He is the author of How Would a Patriot Act?, With Liberty and Justice for Some, and No Place to Hide. He is the recipient of the Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media for his “path-breaking journalistic courage and persistence in confronting conventional wisdom, official deception, and controversial issues.” He also received an Online Journalism Award for Best Commentary for his coverage of Bradley [now Chelsea] Manning. He is co-founder of the watchdog media outlet The Intercept.

You can listen to Glenn Greenwald speak for himself (an mp3 clip) here.
You can get a printable version of this talk (a PDF file) here.

It has been just over a year now since I went to Hong Kong and met with one of the most significant sources in journalism in American history, Edward Snowden. It’s been an intense year for U.S. diplomatic relations with a whole variety of countries. It’s been an intense year for a lot of media outlets and journalists in the world whose conduct over the past decade has really been called into serious question by the disclosures. And it has been a truly intense year for numerous populations in multiple countries on many continents around the world, who discovered that the massive surveillance system that has been built, which we all vaguely knew had existed, was directed not at a handful of terrorists or people engaged in serious violence, but was, in fact, directed at them.

I think one of the remarkable aspects of the last year has been how sustained the intensity is surrounding these issues. It’s really not all that obvious that a year after the revelations began, I could go all over the world, which is what I’ve been doing in the last month in South America, in Europe, on the East Coast of the U.S. last month, and now on the West Coast of the U.S., and have rooms like this fill up with people interested in talking about these issues. It’s really an extraordinary event.

I think one of the reasons that it’s happened, maybe the main one, is one of the most underappreciated aspects of the last year, which is that the debate that has been triggered by the reporting that we were able to do is not just a debate about surveillance. In fact, I would say it’s not even primarily a debate about surveillance. There is a wide array of equally profound issues, if not more profound issues, that have been seriously examined by many countries around the world. This has been a global debate, not a domestic one.

It has involved an examination of the role of individual privacy in the digital age, probably the first time that as a planet, as we put more and more of our communications on the line electronically, we are considering what the value of individual privacy is. It has entailed a debate about the dangers of vesting power in government entities and allowing them to exercise that power in the dark. It has triggered a debate about the role that the U.S. plays in the world and the vast difference between the branding and marketing campaign that defined who President Obama was and his reality. It has triggered a truly, I think, profound debate about the role of journalism and the proper role of journalists vis-à-vis the state. So there have been all of these profound issues that have been debated over the last year, not just surveillance. I think that’s one of the reasons why the intensity has remained so high in this issue.

Part of what has been great for me about being able to go around to events like this and being able to talk to people in person is that when you’re doing this reporting and you have the obligation, which I’ve had for the last year, to work as hard as possible to get as many stories out as I possibly could in the seemingly endless archive of government secrets, you tend to focus us on story after individual story and focus really intensely on what the specific programs are that you’re reporting and what the capabilities are that you’re exposing, and the broader implications of the reporting can sometimes get obscured. One of the things I’m able to do by going around and having these kinds of discussions is it gives me a moment for the first time to take a step back and to think about how all of these issues really connect, why this will really be an enduring set of revelations.

One primary reason is that there has been so much said over the last year about all of these events, about what Edward Snowden did, about the reporting that we did, about the documents that he gave us, about what those documents revealed, so much said to the American media in particular, so much of which is just wrong, is just completely false. It’s funny, if you were somebody who loves to bash the American media and talk about how awful they are—and I am somebody who completely loves to do that; it’s one of my favorite things to do, I’ve been doing it for many years now—it doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that so much of what is conveyed and represented in the American media in this really authoritative, objective tone that they like to use is completely false. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody, certainly not to people who were of adult age in the run-up to the Iraq war. That lesson is a lesson that has been well learned by most of us. But when you’re in the middle of one of these stories that’s being talked about by the media to such an extent and you actually have firsthand knowledge of what’s happening, your appreciation for the U.S. media’s ability and willingness to spout absolute falsehoods escalates dramatically. I am somebody who has been incredibly cynical of the media, and yet I was shocked by the things I saw over the past year just in terms of pure falsity getting passed off as truth.

So one of the things I wanted to do is to be able to just set the record straight and to set forth the evidence that I have seen and that I know myself firsthand to create a historical account about what actually happened. The myths that got disseminated are sometimes so extreme, and yet they endure to this day in a way that’s quite remarkable.

One of the myths that has gotten repeated over and over by defenders of the U.S. government and by defenders of the NSA, is the idea that Edward Snowden has always been, or at least is now, a Russian spy. I know it is hilarious. And yet if you listen to CNN or MSNBC or certainly Fox or any of the major network news shows on Sunday, this is something that gets stated over and over with a great deal of seriousness. How people maintain a straight face when they say it is a mystery to me, and yet they do.

One of the things that is remarkable to me when I went back and I looked at the things that were being said in June of last year, when I was in Hong Kong. I was blissfully ignorant of the things the American media were saying about Edward Snowden and the reporting we were doing because I was focused on the articles. But I went back and I looked at a lot of this. And what’s most amazing is that the people who now say that Edward Snowden is a Russian spy, and they say it with such conviction and certainty, in June of 2013, when he was in Hong Kong before he had left for Moscow, those very same people were going on the very same shows and saying,

Oh, there’s no doubt that he is a Chinese spy. This is just obvious.

Then the minute he left Hong Kong and went to Moscow, seamlessly the whole narrative shifted, without any recognition of what they were saying just weeks earlier. I’m convinced that if he somehow managed tomorrow to travel from Moscow to, I don’t know, Lima, these same people would be saying,

Oh, obviously, he was a Peruvian spy the entire time.

They’ll just say anything.

My favorite instance of this occurred really recently. There was an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Edward J. Epstein, who frequently writes op-eds in places like The Wall Street Journal. I’m just going to read the quote, because it’s my favorite quote ever. This is what he said. He had spoken to a senior Obama cabinet minister who off the record assured him,

There are only three possibilities for the Snowden heist: one, it was a Russian espionage operation; two, it was a Chinese espionage operation; or, three, it was a joint Sino-Russian operation.

I love that so much. What that really means, of course, is, We have absolutely no idea what happened here, but we need to malign and demean him and demonize him as much as we can, so we will just say anything.

The whole time there was so much evidence, so much obvious evidence, that negated this, beginning with the fact that when he was in Hong Kong, he was forced to leave by the government in Hong Kong and in Beijing, not really the treatment typically extended to Chinese spies. And when he arrived in Moscow, he was forced to wait for five weeks in the international transit zone of the Moscow airport as the Putin government negotiated with the U.S. government about what the Russians could get in exchange for handing him over. Not exactly the treatment that the Russian government typically extends to valuable Russian spies.

But more important than that was the fact that he actually never chose to be in Russia in the first place. It was a pure accident that he ended up there. He was trying to transit through on his way to Havana, which had promised him safe passage, and then to Ecuador, where he intended to seek asylum. The reason he ended up in Moscow was that on the flight to Moscow, the U.S. government unilaterally, without any due process, revoked his passport, just declared his passport invalid. Did you know the government can do that? Just one day decide that they’re going to declare your passport invalid? That’s what they did. And then they bullied the Cubans into rescinding their offer of safe passage. The reason he was in Moscow was because he got trapped there by the U.S. government, which then turned around and used their apologists in the media to use the fact that he was forced to be in Moscow as proof that he was a Russian spy.

On top of which, if Edward Snowden were a Russian spy, or a spy of any kind, think about all the things that he could have done with the material that he had. He could have sold it for tens of millions of dollars to multiple intelligence agencies around the world and be extraordinary rich for the rest of his life. Or he could have passed it secretly to American adversaries if he had malignant intent. He did none of that. He came to journalists and asked journalists with well-regarded media institutions to carefully vet the material to inform his fellow citizens about the kind of debate that he thought we ought to be having. The very antithesis of what a spy does, let alone a spy for oppressive regimes.

You can look at media behavior and be shocked that they allowed this accusation to be aired over and over again, not just because there was so much evidence negating it but because there was no evidence ever supporting it. There has never been a shred of evidence that he has cooperated in any way with any government.

There has been a historical attack on whistleblowers. If you go back and look at what the Nixon administration was saying about Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 and 1972, John Ehrlichman was going before Congress and saying,

We think Daniel Ellsberg is a Russian spy.

So there are all these sorts of reasons we should have known on its face that the accusation was false, to the point where it was not even something that should be aired by responsible media outlets.

But the reason those kinds of accusations get aired I think is important and interesting, which is that it really says so much more about the people voicing the accusations and the people who give it credence than it does the target of the accusation, which is Edward Snowden. The reality is that Edward Snowden did what he did because as an act of conscience he was so disturbed by what he perceived to be this extremely dangerous and unjust system of surveillance that he had no choice but to come forward and do what he could to stop it, even if it meant sacrificing his liberty and everything else that he valued in his life. But in order to believe that that was really the reason, you have to believe that people are capable of acting out of conscience and out of conviction and in defense of political values. The people who insist that he’s Russian spy and the media elites who propagate these myths don’t believe that about him because they don’t believe that about themselves. Because they know that they never act out of conscience, that they don’t have any political convictions, that they never take steps to sacrifice their own interests in defense of political ideals. Therefore, they don’t believe that anybody else can do that either. So they search for other hidden motives that prove that the person is actually doing this for all sorts of corrupted ends. It’s a reflection of their own emptiness and corruption, not of the people whom they’re condemning.

Then there was this other thing that got said about him over and over, and still gets said about him, that I find even more interesting and more amazing, which is that Edward Snowden did what he did because he’s “fame- seeking narcissist.” The thing that really amazed me about this was that when I went back and looked at the discourse about this in the U.S. during those weeks after we began our reporting, though I wasn’t aware of this at the time, was that this phrase, fame-seeking narcissist got repeated over and over by so many different American pundits. People like Bob Schieffer, the host of Face the Nation, and David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, and Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist, and Jeffrey Toobin, the legal analyst for CNN, all somehow came up with this phrase instantaneously, literally within 48 hours of our unveiling Edward Snowden. We unveiled him on June 10th. That was when we posted the video and wrote about who our source was. Within 48 hours—I mean this literally; you can Google it—all of these American pundits had simultaneously decided that they were capable of psychologically assessing this person about whom they knew absolutely nothing and had never met in their entire life. And not only did they all decide that they were going to psychologically assess him, diagnose him from a distance as a “fame-seeking narcissist,” they all did it instantaneously.

I’m somebody who, if you had told me three or four years ago that media elites get together and coordinate their messaging, I would have said,

No, I don’t actually think that’s true. I think they just end up saying the same thing because they’re herd animals who just parrot what each other is saying, without any coordination.

But the degree to which they all latched on to the same phrase and the same psychological diagnosis in such a short period of time was really striking to me. Almost enough to make me believe that they were getting some kind of secret messages from some underground lair somewhere about the script from which they were supposed to be reading.

First of all, just as is true for the idea that he was a Russian spy, this idea that Edward Snowden is some sort of fame-seeking narcissist is literally the exact opposite of reality. The very first conversation I ever had with Edward Snowden, before I even met him, before I knew his name, before I knew what he looked like, was over the Internet, when I was in Brazil and he was in Hong Kong. He said to me,

I am determined to unveil myself to the world as the source of these documents, even though I know that doing so will likely send me to prison for the rest of my life. And the reason for that is that I believe I have the obligation to account to the world for what I did. And since I don’t think that what I’m doing is wrong, I’m not going to hide in shame. I’m going to come out and proudly identify myself as the source.

”But,” he said,

Once I do that, I am going to disappear from the sight of the media. I am going to disappear completely.

And the reason he said he was going to do that was because he knew that the goal of the media, the instinct would be to try and personalize the focus on him instead of where he wanted the focus to remain, which was on the substance of what these revelations showed. So he said,

I don’t want any attention for myself. I want to disappear from the media sight.

Literally for the next six months after we unveiled him, I had every single big TV star, all of those TV actors who play the role of journalists on television, calling me pleading to arrange for an interview with Snowden. He rejected every single one of those. He literally could have been the most famous person in the world, on prime time every single night, and yet he categorically refused to do any interviews. The one he just did with NBC in Moscow was the first-ever interview he did after that interview that we did back in Hong Kong a year later. The reason was because he wanted no attention on him. Really kind of weird behavior for a fame-seeking narcissist, I think.

But the complete lack of evidence for this claim and all the evidence that negates it is probably the least interesting part about this labeling of him in this way. I thought about this a lot. In every single instance, literally, when a whistleblower emerges, or not even a whistleblower, any actual dissident, they get attacked almost invariably as being mentally ill, as suffering from some kind of psychological affliction, as having personality attributes that make you want to run as far away from them as you possibly can.

Look at how whistleblowers have been treated or people who bring uncomfortable revelations are treated or people who meaningfully dissent. I don’t mean people who stand up and say, “I’m a Democrat and I don’t like the Republicans” or “I’m a Republican and I don’t like the Democrats.” That’s the kind of dissent that we’re allowed to do. I’m talking about real dissent, when you decide that you’re going to go so far as to break laws in protest of and in defiance of fundamental injustices. That kind of dissent. Anybody who does that is maligned as being mentally unstable.

One of the most fascinating examples to me is there was this instance in 2011 when WikiLeaks leaked, first, multiple documents about the war in Afghanistan, and then many more about the war in Iraq. The documents about the war in Iraq were much more significant than the ones in Afghanistan, because they documented extreme war crimes that the U.S. government and its partners in the Iraqi military were committing deliberately, and that there were huge numbers of civilian deaths that people didn’t know about, atrocities of the worst kind that these documents revealed.

The New York Times, which partnered with WikiLeaks to report on these materials, the day that those documents were released had a nice front-page headline that said, “Documents reveal U.S. atrocities in Iraq,” and then right next to it, almost as prominent, if not as prominent, was an article about Julian Assange written by the pro-war correspondent for The New York Times, John Burns. The article dissected all of Julian Assange’s personality traits and depicted him as this bizarre, paranoid freak who didn’t wash his clothes and slept on his friends’ couches and looked around the corner thinking, weirdly, that somebody might be after him, even though he was in the middle of the biggest national security leak in American history, so maybe that was a pretty rational fear. But the idea was to make him be viewed as so personally unappealing that you actually wanted to turn away from the very serious revelations of what those documents showed. It literally got equal billing.

The same thing happened with Chelsea Manning and her revelations. If you read what she actually was saying, it’s the model of rationality. She was saying that she joined the Army because she believed in the cause of the war in Iraq, and she slowly and gradually discovered the extreme levels of corruption and abuse that were taking place as part of this war and decided that she not only didn’t want to be part of it anymore but wanted the world to know about all of the secret, hidden atrocities that were taking place and therefore leaked these documents in order to trigger reform. Whatever else you think about what she did, that is a model of rational thinking. Yet instantly the U.S. media decided that the reason she did what she did was because of her struggles with her “gender disorder,” as they called it, or because of childhood conflicts with her father.

This is the tactic over and over that gets invoked. And it isn’t just about trying to distract attention away from the revelations or make you so uncomfortable with the disclosures that these whistleblowers and dissidents bring. That is an important part of it, but there’s something more pernicious going on, more subtle but more pernicious. That is this. If somebody steps out that extremely and breaks laws in order to dissent, the premise of these attacks—that Julian Assange is some paranoid freak, that Chelsea Manning only did it because she was struggling with her gender disorder, that Daniel Ellsberg is a swinger and in love with his sister, that Edward Snowden is a fame-seeking narcissist—is that if you dissent in that way, then it automatically means that there is some kind of disturbed psychological undercurrent that has caused you to do that, that it can only be explained by a psychological affliction.

The premise there is that the status quo is so fundamentally good, that the American political system is so at its core designed to give us freedom and choice, that only someone mentally disturbed would think that it was unjust enough to merit that level of protest and objection. It’s really a way of implicitly teaching and indoctrinating that the only mentally stable and healthy choice is to comply or submit or acquiesce to the prevailing order, and that anyone who doesn’t do that by definition is demonstrating some kind of psychological affliction. That’s a really subtle yet powerful message to convey.

The fallacy of it is that while, of course, it’s possible that people who dissent in a radical or meaningful way, namely, breaking laws to do it, are motivated in some cases by some kind of psychological drive as opposed to political beliefs, it’s also the case that oftentimes, in fact many times, people who don’t dissent, who instead choose to acquiesce, are doing so because of psychological afflictions as well. Perhaps it’s authoritarianism, perhaps it’s cowardice, perhaps it’s excessive groupthink. But this idea that the only people whose psychological motives we assess are those who dissent, but we never psychologically analyze those who refrain from dissent, is a really odious notion, because it inherently delegitimizes the idea of dissent.

I think it’s very reasonable question to ask, who is actually the psychologically disturbed person? Chelsea Manning, who comes forward and wants to reveal to the world the atrocities that the U.S. is committing in Iraq, or all of the people who decide that those atrocities aren’t enough to make them object in a meaningful way? Or who is it who is really psychologically disturbed? Julian Assange, who decides that this massive secrecy regime is dangerous and menacing, or the tens of thousands of people who work within it every day who do nothing about it? Or who is psychologically disturbed? Edward Snowden for deciding that all of us should know about the extreme invasions of our privacy to which we’re being subjected in secret on a daily basis or the tens of thousands of people who knew about it and did nothing and the officials who perpetrated it? That’s a really important debate to have. The idea that you are mentally ill if you dissent, that is the debate that that tactic is designed to suppress.

I just want to talk about one last myth. That is the idea that the only reason the surveillance state has been constructed is because our government officials have this really deep and abiding desire to keep us safe. This is really just about finding and monitoring the communications of people who are engaged in terrorism or other kinds of violent plots. It is genuinely shocking to me that anybody can stand up in public and say that after the last year without having their reputation instantly obliterated.

So much of the spying that we’ve revealed over the last year so plainly has nothing to do with any of that, whether it’s spying on democratic allies like the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, or the chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, or spying on oil companies throughout Latin America or economic summits or on all sorts of populations around the world en masse who plainly have nothing to do with terrorism. There’s so much of that that has been revealed that just has no connection to that claim at all.

But even more compelling are the NSA’s own documents which really lay bare exactly what their institutional mandate and objective are in really clear language. These are the things they said when they thought nobody was listening and that you would never see. The motto of the NSA—the motto, their institutional phrase that governs what they are about—is “Collect it all.” Not “Collect communications of terrorists” or “Collect some of it” or “Collect a lot of it.” It’s “Collect it all.”

I think the NSA is actually owed a lot of thanks, they certainly have my gratitude for producing documents that are this clear and easy to understand—“Our new collection posture.” And then there is a little circle and it has six phrases that define what their collection posture is. At the top it says, “Collect it all.” And then it says, “Exploit it all,” “Process it all,” “Sniff it all,” “Partner it all,” and “Know it all.”

They are collecting every single day billions of emails and telephone calls. They have entire populations under surveillance on a daily basis, including our own. It is the largest system of suspicionless surveillance ever created in human history. The idea that they can still stand up in public and say this is about terrorism and have the U.S. media and all sorts of other people take that seriously is one of the most powerful indictments of just how rotted our political discourse really is.

One of the most important parts of the debate we’ve had over the last year is about the notion of privacy and what privacy means to the individual and to individual freedom. This is actually not an easy argument to have. It’s a hard case to make, why privacy matters so much. People have a really easy time understanding, for obvious reasons, and for good reasons, why feeding their children or having health care or having a job is this immediate question of survival. They have a harder time understanding why privacy deserves the same level of protection, because it tends to be a more abstract and ethereal and seemingly remote value.

So it’s not uncommon—I hear it all the time—for people, even people in good faith, reasonable people, to say,

You know, I just am not one of those people who is doing bad things, and therefore I don’t have anything to hide.


I don’t really mind if people read my emails, because I have nothing to hide.

The CEO of Google put this in the purest and most disgusting manner. He was asked in an interview about Google’s systematic invasions of privacy, and he said,

You know, if you want to hide something, if you’re so worried about somebody knowing what it is that you’re doing or saying, that’s probably a really good sign that you shouldn’t be doing it.

The premise being that the only people who have something to hide are people who are doing something evil, something wrong, something criminal.

One of the fascinating parts about this claim is that the people who say “I don’t really have anything to hide, because I’m not doing anything wrong” don’t actually mean it. The way that you know that they don’t actually mean it is that these same people put passwords on their email and social media accounts and they put locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors. And there are all sorts of things that they say and do and that they would only say and do when they think that nobody is watching or listening, that they would never in a million years say if they thought other people were knowing what it was that they were doing. There are all sorts of things that we have to hide as individuals that have nothing to do with violence or criminality. The fact is that people instinctively seek out privacy, to the point that every single time, literally, over the last year when somebody has said to me, “You know, I really don’t have anything to hide; I don’t actually care if people know what I’m doing, because I’m not one of those people who have done something wrong,” I’ve said the same thing every single time. Try this and you will see the same result. I’ve said,” Okay, here’s my email,” and I give them my email account.

What I’d like you to do is email me all of the passwords to your email and social media accounts so that I can just troll through everything that you’re doing and writing and publish at will whatever I feel like publishing under your name. You’re not doing anything wrong. You should have nothing to hide.

And not a single person, not one, has taken me up on this offer.

There was this remarkable op-ed early on, after we had published the article revealing that the NSA was collecting what they called the metadata for every single American. Metadata seems really technical when you call it that. What it is actually is the list of every single person with whom we’re communicating: who is calling us, who are we calling, how long are we speaking for, where are we when we speak, who is emailing us, and who are we emailing. And Dianne Feinstein, the cheerleader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who is the NSA’s best friend in Congress by far, wrote an op-ed in USA Today saying,

I don’t even understand why people are so upset by this. In fact, I don’t even understand why they’re calling this spying. It’s not really spying on somebody if you’re not reading the content of their email, if you’re not listening to the content of your phone, all you’re doing is collecting the list of all the people with whom they’re communicating.

The reason why that is absurd to the point of being offensive I think is obvious. Think about how much somebody can learn about you, how intimate they can get in terms of their understanding of what you’re doing just by having what they call the metadata. If you’re a woman who calls an abortion clinic or you’re somebody who calls a physician who is an HIV specialist, or you call a drug or alcohol addiction hotline, or you call a suicide hotline, or you speak with somebody who isn’t your spouse late at night, collecting all that information will enable people to know some of the most intimate information about you, in fact, sometimes more probing and more invasive and more intimate than if they were listening to the content itself.

But one of the things about Dianne Feinstein’s claim was that there grew this sort of online movement instantly after her op-ed that called for Dianne Feinstein to be true to her words. If spying isn’t really collecting all this information, then every single day at the end of her workday she or one of her 8,000 assistants should post online a list of all the people with whom she emailed and telephoned that day and all the people she met in person and spoke to. Of course, she would never do that.

Because we all instinctively understand why privacy is so fundamental to human freedom. It’s something that we all seek out instinctively and as human beings always have. We are social animals. We do need other people to know what we’re saying and doing and to hear what it is we’re doing and saying. That’s why people voluntarily post things about themselves online and why they’ve always sought out human interaction. But just as essential to what it means to be human is having places we can go where we can think and read and be and choose and act without judgmental eyes being cast upon us.

There are all kinds of social science research, but I think our own personal experiences are even more compelling, that demonstrate that when we think or believe that other people are watching what we’re doing or monitoring us or judging us, our range of options shrinks considerably. When we think other people are watching, our behavior becomes more conformist and more compliant. We do the things that we think other people want us to do and will judge us well for, because as human beings we all try to avoid shame and being condemned and being denounced. It is only the realm that we can go to where nobody else is watching or judging us that is the realm where creativity and dissent and exploration about who we are as people exclusively resides.

A world in which there is no private realm is a world that becomes much less interesting, much less creative, much more submissive and compliant and obedient, which is why governments love surveillance—because it instills those behavioral values in people. You have not a physical prison that you get put into but a prison that enters your mind. That is what the true purpose and the true outcome of a surveillance state is. I think we all instinctively understand that, but I think the ability to sit back and think about why privacy is so important is a really crucial part of the debate that we’ve had over the last year.

I want to spend a little bit of time talking about the motive for this system, because that is a question that I get asked all the time. I think people by now are convinced that the NSA and its partner governments and other agencies in the U.S. security state are truly devoted to the elimination of privacy in the digital age. That is not hyperbole. I mean by that that they want to take and store and, when they want, analyze and monitor every single communication event that takes place by and between human beings on the planet electronically, on the Internet and by the telephone. You don’t need to take my word for that. Their own documents, as I said earlier, demonstrate that that’s their goal. But that then leads to the question of why the U.S. government would want to create a system that does that. What is the core motive that has driven this system to be created?

Motives can sometimes be really difficult to ascertain, so I think we have a hard time understanding our own motives, let alone other people’s. And when you’re talking about an institution this large, it becomes a very difficult question to ask. It’s like asking, Why did the U.S. invade Iraq? It’s almost impossible to answer that, because different factions responsible for that invasion had very different motives. Sometimes they had mixed motives and complex motives. It’s a hard question to answer. But one thing I can tell you for sure about the motive of the system is that it has nothing to do with the motive they claim. It has nothing to do with stopping terrorism or keeping the population safe.

This is one way that I know that. If you read what the 9/11 Commission said, which was designed to investigate why the U.S. government, with all of its surveillance capabilities, even back then, failed to detect a plot of this magnitude, what it concluded was that the problem was not that the U.S. government had failed to gather all of the information it needed to know this plot was coming. In fact, the opposite was true. They had in their possession all of the intelligence necessary to piece together to know that the 9/11 attack was coming. The reason that they failed to detect the plot was because they had collected so much information that they were incapable of understanding the significance and the meaning of what it was that they had. So the response to this diagnosis was for them to say, You know what, let’s go now and collect even more. Which is like being told that you have lung cancer and walking out of the office and saying, “I’m now going to smoke five packs of cigarettes more a day than I was before.” It makes no sense. It clearly is not the purpose.

When you are collecting every single communication event that takes place in the world and storing it, it becomes impossible to find the people who are talking about attacking the Boston Marathon or blowing up trains in Madrid or London or detonating a plane above Detroit or a bomb in the middle of Times Square. It is impossible to find what you claim you’re looking for in constructing the system. Which is why they don’t find those things.

If that isn’t the motive, the question then becomes, what is the motive? Why has the system expanded to the point it has?

I think one significant reason is that in the wake of 9/11 we just decided to drown the national security state with enormous amounts of money. When you drown bureaucracies with money, they will rapidly expand without limit. Every day they will wake up and think, How we can we expand our power and authority? But the more important part is that when you drown agencies with all that money, it creates an immense profit motive. Seventy-five percent of the intelligence budget of the NSA goes into the coffers of private corporations, which means every time the surveillance state expands, every time there’s a new capability, every time there’s a new target that is warranting a new system, the corporations that run the national security state make more and more money.

But the key reason, that I think should never be overlooked, is that surveillance vests governments that wield it with enormous amounts of power. If you can know everything that a citizenry is doing, especially at a time when you are creating higher and higher walls of secrecy behind which you’re operating, the power imbalance becomes immense. It becomes virtually impossible for that citizenry to challenge in any meaningful way the people who are wielding power. I think the surveillance state is part of a wildly underappreciated trend, which is that we have allowed all of these very radical powers and extremist policies to take root in the name of the War on Terror.

What has happened over the last four or five years, as the War on Terror has wound down, is that these policies began to be imported onto American soil, aimed at Americans instead of existing on foreign soil, aimed at foreigners. Which is why you see the use of drones now coming away from Iraq and Somalia and Pakistan and Yemen into the U.S. Or why you see the paramilitarized police forces that once patrolled the streets of Baghdad now visible in all American cities, used to crush, for example, the Occupy movement. Or you see the extreme levels of government secrecy that justify more secrecy being used domestically as well. Or you see the idea that the U.S. government can assassinate foreigners without due process now being aimed at Americans. This system of surveillance, which was pioneered in Iraq under the “Collect it all” banner by Keith Alexander, who was in Iraq at the time, before he became NSA chief, also has been now imported onto American soil.

There’s a real question about why that would happen. What explains this trend of importing these increasingly extreme policies that were once used to justify winning a war and are now used to aim at the American population? I think it’s really important not to underestimate the extent to which people who wield power in the U.S. fear political and social instability, largely as a result of huge amounts of economic inequality. In previously stable Western countries, like Spain or England or Greece or Italy, there have been sustained riots in the streets. Even if the U.S. there were two political movements, one from the right, one from the left, that got successfully co-opted and crushed—the Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement—that signaled that there was such severe discontent in the U.S. that genuine instability, even some kind of a rebellion outside of the ballot box, was possible. And there’s a real fear about this instability worsening, because the economic inequality that has come from the 2008 financial crisis is not going anywhere.

When you have a fear of instability, social instability and political instability, elites can respond in two ways: they can either think about how to placate the anger that causes the instability by reforming and by redressing those problems—and I don’t think our elites are even remotely interested in doing that—or you can say, How is it that we can empower ourselves and shield ourselves so that we can prevent that anger and instability from truly undermining our power? One way to do that is by consolidating the instruments and weapons used for population control. All of these weapons that were once used against foreign populations are now being imported onto American soil, with the surveillance state being one of the most potent means of control. It’s easy to think about that as some kind of conspiratorial thinking, but the reality is that states have always craved potent surveillance because of the way that it does breed compliance and submission in populations that know they’re being watched.

The last point I wanted to make is the one that I get asked about the most, which is,

Well, you’ve talked about all these interesting things that have happened in the last year and there have been all these fantastic debates, but what has really changed about anything? The NSA is still spying and the U.S. national security state is still as powerful as ever. So what kind of changes really have taken place?

One of the things that I think it’s important to think about is the way that change happens. It’s really easy to give in to this idea that change happens overnight, and there is a sort of instant gratification desire, that I want to see the building of the NSA collapsed. And if it’s not collapsed and if it’s still standing, I’m going to conclude that there have not really been any changes. The U.S. national security state is the most powerful part of the U.S. government, which is the most powerful government on earth. The NSA is not going to collapse because we published some of their documents and there’s a bunch of anger around the world. It’s really important not to look to the U.S. government as the source that’s going to impose real limits on the power of the U.S. government, because that’s just not how power gets exercised. People don’t walk around thinking about how to unilaterally limit their own power.

But there are some really promising signs. There are countries around the world—influential, significant countries—that are genuinely furious about what they’ve learned and that are working together to undermine American hegemony of the Internet. I think even more significant is the fact that U.S. technology companies, like Facebook and Google and Yahoo and Microsoft, are genuinely petrified, in a really pleasing way, about the impact that the surveillance system is going to have on their future business interests. They don’t care at all about your privacy or about the privacy of their users. And the proof of that is that when nobody knew it was happening, they very eagerly cooperated with the NSA, well beyond what the law required them to do, because of all the benefits they were getting and the lack of cost, because nobody knew that was happening. But now they’re extremely worried that all of you, aware of what they’re doing to your privacy—and especially what 14-year-olds and 12-year-olds and 10-year-olds will think—are no longer willing to use the companies that you know are turning your data over to the NSA and are collaborating with the NSA, that you will be vulnerable to appeals by Brazilian and German and Korean companies that “You should use our products and not theirs because we won’t violate your privacy.”

The U.S. government doesn’t care at all about public opinion polls or about public anger over surveillance, but they definitely care about what Silicon Valley billionaires think. These Silicon Valley tycoons are imposing genuine pressure now on the U.S. government to limit that surveillance and also creating ways to convince the public that their systems are safe.

But I think the cause of the greatest optimism for me about the changes that have taken place is that when people understand the extent to which their privacy is being compromised, they start taking matters into their own hands. There really are all sorts of technological programs of encryption and other means of rendering your online activities anonymous that are effective, that keep the NSA and other governments out of what you’re doing on the Internet. The problem is that right now there are maybe 10,000 people in the world who use encryption. And in the NSA’s warped mind, if you use encryption, which means that you’re trying to hide from them what you’re saying and doing, it probably means you’re somebody suspicious, because only bad people would want to hide what they’re doing and saying from the NSA. So they’re able to go target people now who use encryption. But if 10 million people used encryption instead of 10,000, they will no longer be able to do that. That will create meaningful walls around our communications that the NSA and other governments can’t invade. That’s one of the reasons why, even though there aren’t these genuine reform bills coming out of Congress, and won’t be, I’m very optimistic about the prospects for change.

I think it’s really easy, if you are a citizen who believes that there are serious injustices in your country, to give in to this kind of defeatism, this idea that these forces are so formidable and so powerful and so entrenched that there is just really nothing that I can do about them. I can vote for this party or that party, and nothing seems to change. The same factions continue to reign. So I really don’t feel like there is much that I can do. I just feel helpless. A lot of people turn away from political injustice because of that temptation of defeatism, which is very compelling and powerful for all of us. It’s one of the things the government wants to instill in us, this learned helplessness, this idea that there’s actually nothing that we can do.

One of the lessons, I think the most profound lesson, that I learned in the last year from working with Edward Snowden, something that will, I think, really shape how I view the world for the rest of my life, is the lesson that we can learn from what he did. He is someone who is 29 years old. He grew up in a house that was lower-middle class to poor. His father was in the Coast Guard for 30 years. He had no position or power or prestige of any kind. He was an obscure employee working for a large corporation. And through nothing more than an act of conscience, an act of fearlessness, a choice in defense of political convictions, acting more or less on his own, he really did change the world. He changed how hundreds of millions of people around the planet think about that wide array of topics I began by enumerating.

There are all sorts of lessons throughout history of powerless, obscure individuals through acts of conscience changing the world, whether it be Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus or a street vendor in Tunisia lighting himself on fire and sparking a rebellion across a major region against the world’s most entrenched dictators. There are all kinds of lessons that should forever negate our succumbing to this temptation of defeatism.

But for me, watching this 29-year-old give up his entire life, out of the knowledge that he didn’t want to have on his conscience for the rest of his life the idea that he could have done something about an injustice but failed to do so, and sparked this massive ripple effect around the world, where all kinds of other people, including me, got infected with the courage he displayed. The huge numbers of journalists and media outlets that previously would never have touched material like this that were eager to prove that they were willing to publish aggressively, to all new sources that are now coming forward to copy the template that he created, the consciousness changes that he has engendered underscore that all of us as individuals always do have the power within us. If we summon the right will and unleash the right amount of passion, we all have that ability to find within ourselves how we can change the world. There are probably different ways that we can contribute, there are different skills and resources that we have. But the one thing that this should always teach us is that defeatism is always deceitful, it’s always unwarranted, and it’s always baseless.

With that, I thank you all very, very much for listening.

Related Programs from Alternative Radio
Glenn Greenwald – The Surveillance State
Glenn Greenwald – Shredding the Constitution
Pratap Chatterjee – Outsourcing the War on Terror
Jeremy Scahill – The National Security Beast
Rania Masri – Privatizing War
Robert Parry – The Art of Investigative Journalism
Phillip Agee – Inside the Company: CIA Diary
Kathy & Bill Christison – Terrorism & US Foreign Policy
Alfred McCoy – United States of Surveillance
John Stockwell – Inside the CIA
John Stockwell – The Dark Side of U.S. Foreign Policy (2 CDs)

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P .O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977

Posted in All dumbed down, Big picture, Corporate bonding and domination, Department of Offense, Economic injustice, Follies of empire, John Birch ilk, Kafkaesque Amerika, Overseas Contingency Operations and Kinetic Military Action | Leave a comment

The National Security Beast

Jeremy Scahill
Lincoln Center
Fort Collins, CO
9 April 2014

The National Security Beast is a terrifying behemoth that extends its tentacles across the globe. Like a many-headed hydra it grows and grows. It has an insatiable appetite for weaponry. For example, in late 2013, the navy launched the Zumwalt, the largest destroyer ever built. It came in for a cool $3 billion. But that’s a bargain compared with the new Ford-class aircraft carrier. Price tag? $13 billion. The Beast has a life of its own. Presidents come and go but the war machine just chugs along. The “military-industrial complex” is always manufacturing new enemies to justify itself. The most urgent threat we face is climate change. Why not slash the Pentagon budget? For starters, cut the nuclear arsenal and mothball half the Trident submarines and use the money to protect the environment.

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Jeremy Scahill is the award-winning National Security Correspondent for the Nation magazine and author of the bestsellers Blackwater and Dirty Wars. He has reported from war zones around the world. His work has sparked several congressional investigations. He is a founding editor of The Intercept. He is also the subject of the film Dirty Wars, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

You can listen to Jeremy Scahill speak for himself (an mp3 clip) here.
You can get a printable version of this talk (a PDF file) here.

I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican. I’m a journalist. I’m not one person in public and another person in private. I think that as journalists, it has to be who you are in your heart. Not a career that you think you have or a profession that you’ve chosen, but a way of being. That’s why great journalism contributes to strengthening democratic institutions or strengthening movements for change. Because you’re providing people with information that they can use to make informed decisions.

I covered the war in Yugoslavia during the 1999 NATO bombing. I repeatedly was in Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, where I covered the struggle of indigenous villagers against the multinational oil corporations, Chevron and Shell.

And when Hurricane Katrina happened, I had just gotten done doing extensive time in Iraq, and I went to New Orleans. I arrived there just a couple of days after the really bad flooding had begun. I didn’t see any FEMA the whole time that I was there. The National Guard was deployed in Iraq by Bush at the time.

The second day I was there, I was in the French Quarter just walking around, and I saw these two New York City police officers. I live in Brooklyn, New York, and I saw these New York City police officers, so I went up and started talking to them. I thought it was interesting. There’s no FEMA, there’s no National Guard, but why are there New York City police officers here? They had come down to volunteer, like a lot of people. Firefighters came from different parts of the country, police officers came from different parts of the country.

So I’m sort of shooting the shit with these officers when this compact car with no license plates on it pulls up in front of us. And out pop these massive, steroid-induced creatures, vaguely resembling men. They were like Incredible Hulk figures or something, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Huge men with wrap-around sunglasses and baseball hats with the logo of a bear paw in a sniper site on it. It was like a mercenary clown car. Ten of them somehow poured out of this little Yugo or whatever it was. They came up to us and they said to the officers,

Where are the rest of the Blackwater guys?

And without skipping a beat, the officers start to tell them. I had one of those moments where you kind of zone out. It was like

do- do-do-do do-do-do-do. Blackwater?

These guys get back into the mercenary clown car, and they speed off. And I said to the officers,

Blackwater? You mean like the guys in Iraq and Afghanistan?

They said,

Yes, they’re all over the place down here.

I said,

Wow. Where can I find them?

They said,

You can go either way on this street,

implying that they were sort of everywhere.

So I walked down Bourbon Street and watched as these Blackwater guys were emptying out someone’s apartment above a bar. They were throwing the mattress out, throwing the furniture out. And they draped an American flag and they draped a Blackwater flag over it. They had sort of taken up shop in the middle of the French Quarter as their headquarters.

I ended up talking to some of these guys. They had M4 assault rifles, they had Glock 9 pistols strapped to their legs. They were wearing full armor, those ridiculous wrap-around glasses. I was traveling at the time with a woman, and they were incredibly interested in her breasts. So we were able to talk with them because they primarily wanted to be around this woman. She and I were sort of playing good cop, bad cop, so these guys are all, like,

Hey, baby, what you doin’ tonight?

And I’m, like,

So where were you in Iraq?

We had sort of plotted this out, and it happens like that sometimes.

Anyway, we talked to them. Many of them had been in Iraq. One guy had just been in Iraq two weeks earlier. And they told us that they were in New Orleans to protect FEMA. There’s no FEMA there, but somehow the mercenaries were there. And one of them flashes a gold badge from underneath his armor and says,

We were deputized

—and he used that word, “deputized”

—by the governor of the state of Louisiana, and we can use lethal force.

And they said that why they were there was to “confront criminals and stop looters.” So I asked them,

Who hired you?

And they said,

Oh, that’s above our pay grade.

So I started to inquire with the U.S. Government about this. At first they denied the story. And then they were forced to admit, because after I did a story, then the Washington Post followed up on it, that the Department of Homeland Security had hired Blackwater on a megamillion-dollar, no-bid contract to be the official protective force of FEMA. I don’t know if FEMA has arrived yet in New Orleans, but the mercenaries on the no-bid contract were certainly there. It was like Baghdad on the Bayou down there: Halliburton, Bechtel, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, Blackwater, all of these companies just descended. They went from the Persian Gulf to the U.S. Gulf, and they went from war profiteering to disaster profiteering.

I became obsessed with this company and with this development as a kind of microcosm of what was happening in the world, what was happening in the so-called war on terror, what was happening with the cronyism of the Bush-Cheney government, what was happening with the use of private forces, which, of course, is increasingly happening throughout our cities across the country in urban areas, where there’s a move to privatize police forces. There is a paramilitarization of law enforcement in this country, where many, many entities that shouldn’t havethem have these huge SWAT-style teams.

I started digging into this company and learned that the founder and owner of Blackwater—it was not a publicly traded company—was a radical right-wing neocrusader whose family had been the major bankroller of the Republican revolution and had given the seed money to two organizations that would form the core of the radical religious right, one of which is based here in Colorado. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, was able to start his organization because of the financial generosity of the family of Eric Prince, the owner of Blackwater. In fact, James Dobson gave the eulogy at Eric Prince’s father’s funeral. Gary Bauer, Family Research Council, started the Family Research Council with money given by Eric Prince’s family. This is in the 1990s.

At the time when Blackwater opened, the main source of income they thought that they were going to generate was by dealing with school shootings. Columbine, of course, had just happened. Blackwater responded to the Columbine shootings by creating a mock high school in the wilderness of North Carolina called RU Ready High. They invite the law enforcement from around the country to train in SWAT-style tactics to raid high schools to take down the violent youth of America. That was the whole point of the thing.

On 9/11, Blackwater’s entire game changed. Eric Prince, the owner of Blackwater, was on Fox News, of course, a few days after 9/11. And he said,

We were struggling to build this business and we were looking sort of domestically. After 9/11 our phone has been ringing off the hook.

Among the first calls that came in to Blackwater were from the CIA. The CIA ended up hiring Blackwater to reactivate a network of former Special Operations soldiers and CIA paramilitaries to serve as a kind of off-the-radar hit team for the U.S. Government in the early stages of the so-called war on terror. So Blackwater began this relationship where they became essentially like a privatized wing of the CIA, of the Pentagon Special Operations Forces, and as a sort of Praetorian Guard for the Bush and Cheney administration.

I tracked that story of Blackwater for years around the globe. Of course, many people here are aware of the mass killings of civilians that happened in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the fact that no one from Blackwater ever paid any price, really, for any of the criminality that that company was engaged in. Not to mention the waste, fraud, and abuse of money, but just the war crimes that they were involved with committing.

It was through my reporting on Blackwater that I ended up being exposed to this entire world of covert forces. All of us know that the CIA has covert agencies. We know that there have been dirty tricks all around the world. We know that the military has been involved with those things. But when you actually come face to face with modern iterations of it, when you understand that sort of hidden history, it is chilling, the implications it has for any semblance of democracy in our country.

We are living in a moment where we have a Democratic president who won the Nobel Peace Prize, is a constitutional lawyer by training, and is presiding over what is effectively a global assassination program. The most devastating aspect of the Obama presidency, when it comes to what is called “counterterrorism”—although I think our policy encourages terrorism—and “national security”—although I think it undermines our national security—is not just that he’s doing it but that he is asserting that he is right in doing it and that it is legitimate morally and legally to drone-bomb in countries anywhere where the U.S. pleases, to put people on kill lists who have not been charged with crimes and against whom we may not even have evidence that they are engaged in a terrorist plot against the U.S.

For all of the complaining about President Obama, that he’s a Kenyan, a socialist—and when you turn on Fox News, they say Barack Hussein—and then there is like a long pause—Obama. They want the Hussein to really resonate with you. They want you to stew on that for a moment. But for all the conservatives and the neocons complaining about how this Marxist Manchurian candidate who really is the second coming of Stokely Carmichael and wants to resurrect Chairman Mao and put him in charge of our economy, for all of that talk, I guarantee you that Dick Cheney is sitting not so far from here in Wyoming, fly-fishing or something, having a good chuckle about all of this. Because if Barack Obama had not been elected president, many of the core programs that Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld developed under the auspices of the so-called war and terror would not be expanding in the way that they are, would not be continued in some cases, and that they would not have the right to sort of say,

We’re going to continue the show the next time a Republican is in office.

Barack Obama has legitimized policies and programs that I think many liberals would have been outraged over if a Republican had won in 2008.

Barack Obama, when he was running for president and then when he won the first time, said,

I’m going to have the most transparent administration in history.

Obama the constitutional lawyer would rail against the Cheney and Bush use of the state secrets privilege, which Cheney and Bush used widely to try to quash any attempt to hold them accountable. If families of Guantánamo prisoners who died under mysterious circumstances wanted to get information about those deaths—state secrets privilege. If someone wanted to understand the extent of the CIA’s assassination program—state secrets privilege. They would use it all the time. Obama, to his credit, on the campaign trail, where it’s much easier to do these things than when you’re in office, was railing against that and saying he was going to severely limit the use of the state secrets privilege.

His administration has used it more than Bush and Cheney, and he still has well over a year left in his term. So President Obama talked a good game when he was candidate Obama on many of these issues, but at the end of the day, they have expanded and continued the most egregious aspects of the Bush-Cheney so-called counterterrorism apparatus. The life’s work of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney boiled down to one of the ideas in the Federalist Papers, and that was the idea of the unitary executive—the idea that when it came to foreign policy, when it came to security policy, there should essentially be a dictatorship of the executive branch, and that Congress’s only role in those programs for securing and defending the nation is funding. That Congress doesn’t actually have a say in overseeing the activities of the executive branch when national security is in question. They believed that Iran Contra not only wasn’t a scandal but was a model for how the United States should conduct its foreign policy militarily and use its CIA forces and other intelligence forces. In fact, Dick Cheney was a member of Congress when Iran Contra was being investigated, and he wrote the minority report defending Iran Contra.

These guys came up with the idea of the widespread use of executive orders and signing statements by the White House. You will hear sometimes that the president has issued an executive order or a signing statement. The idea behind that in the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld world was to undermine any ability of Congress to have a say in a variety of policies based on laws that were bills passed by Congress and then signed into law by presidents. So presidents could say, We don’t like this aspect of this bill that we signed into law, so we’re going to issue a signing statement that overrides it. Many of those are classified. Reagan loved doing that, George H.W. Bush loved doing that, Clinton did it, less than them but continued it.

Obama loves those signing statements. They’ve used them repeatedly to justify their drone program, to justify continuing the rendition program, to justify various assaults on civil liberties in this country, to justify giving aid to human-rights-abusing governments around the world who use child soldiers or who are involved in systematic human rights abuses. They use this secret process that is thoroughly and fundamentally antidemocratic to continue to support despots, dictators, what are effectively death squads, or policies that, if they were brought out into the light, most Americans would find deeply offensive and many lawyers would say are extralegal if not totally unconstitutional. So President Obama in doing this has actually helped to realize the life’s work of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

Let’s be clear. Rumsfeld and Cheney were Murder Incorporated. They were a killing machine around the world. They empowered war corporations in an unprecedented manner. I don’t think it’s a helpful discussion to ask, Is Obama worse than Bush? On a level of pure killing, it would be really hard to match what Bush and Cheney did. But in terms of damage to the cause of justice, in terms of damage to the reputation of the U.S. around the world, it would be hard to quantify just how much has been done under this administration. Imagine the perception of the message being sent by the U.S. around the world when this figure Barack Obama becomes president, who is widely viewed as this transformative guy who says, I’m going to hit the reset button with the Muslim and Arab world, and then proceeds to continue the same kinds of policies.

Barack Obama has conducted more drone strikes in Pakistan than Bush and Cheney ever did. In fact, he did more drone strikes in his first term in office than Bush did in two full terms in the White House. Obama expanded the use of what are called signature strikes. There are two kinds of drone strikes. One is a personality strike, so you have an individual whose identity you know, you have evidence that they’re involved with terrorism plots or criminal activity, and you say,

We’re going to take this person out.

So you go and you find them and you kill them in a drone strike. I have all sorts of problems with that, but that’s one kind of drone strike. What Obama’s administration started doing very, very early on—and this had only been done a couple of times under President Bush—are signature strikes. They mapped out certain areas of Pakistan and ultimately then certain areas of Yemen, and they said,

If we do a drone strike in this area, and we kill people who are of military age and they’re male, we will posthumously declare them to be terrorists. We in fact don’t have to know the identities of the people we’re targeting. If the data on their phone indicates that they’re in contact with a certain number of dangerous people, if they live in a certain area, if they’re around these other people, we’re going to assume that they’re going to be up to no good someday, and it’s better to kill them before they kill us.

That’s essentially what this White House has embraced as its counterterrorism policy.

They’re engaged in preemptive war. But it’s not actually even a war, because it’s one side pummeling another on the vague idea that maybe one day these people are going to be engaged in a plot that may or may not succeed against the U.S. That’s what it boils down to.

It’s not that Barack Obama is immune to the reality that civilians are being killed; it’s that they’re starting to believe their own propaganda, because they’re posthumously just saying,

Those people were all terrorists.

So they’ve created a mathematical equation to figure out how many civilians are killed that almost always produces the number zero when civilians are in question.

I don’t think that Barack Obama set out to engage in this kind of policy around the world. What I think happened is that once he got the nomination for president, he got his first all-access briefing. This was when he was still running for president. He hadn’t beaten John McCain yet, but once you get the nomination of a major party, you’re entitled to an all-access intelligence briefing from the CIA. So General Michael Hayden, who was the director of the CIA at the time, flew to Chicago and briefed Obama in the federal building after he had gotten the Democratic nomination for president. After he got that briefing, you could see a dramatic change in Obama’s rhetoric. He started to become much more militaristic, much more fascinated by the idea of striking terrorists before they strike us, of violating the sovereignty of other nations, for instance, to go and track down Osama bin Laden, something that John McCain stupidly, in terms of conventional politics, attacked Barack Obama for saying.

Then Obama comes into office, and he is overwhelmed by the Beast—the Beast being the permanent national security apparatus in the U.S. This is a Beast that includes huge, powerful players in the military-industrial complex, it includes lifers at the CIA, lifers at the NSA, lifers at the Pentagon, lifers in the 16 intelligence agencies in the U.S. That Beast—it’s not like the Bilderberg Group or the Illuminati—does not have to be run by one person. It has a life of its own. Its primary objective is its own survival. You don’t need to have a conspiracy where one head on this Hydra knows what the other one is doing. They all work in unison, and they overwhelm every president who comes in with the threat matrix.

There are thousands of concurrent threats against the U.S. There are people, Mr. President, that are going to be blowing up our embassies around the world, that are going to be engaged in gas attacks against our subways, that are going to try to blow up major sporting events.

And they just inundate these guys right when they come into office with every possible threat that could happen. And they always say,

If we don’t do X, Y, and Z, we’re going to get hit, and we’re going to get hit hard.

Then you have people like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, the political hacks. They’re sitting and they’re listening to all of this, and they’re envisioning what a one-term presidency looks like if there’s an attack inside the U.S.

Obama had campaigned on a pledge not to deploy U.S. troops except in the surge in Afghanistan. So who comes in and offers him a solution on platter? These guys from something called the Joint Special Operations Command, headed for a long time by General Stanley McChrystal and at the time Obama became president headed by Admiral William McRaven. They basically say,

We have the capacity, Mr. President, to use Navy Seals, Delta Force commandos, the best pilots in the world. We can engage in covert activities on the ground and through the use of weaponized drones where we will be able to preemptively kill the terrorists before they can engage in plots against us.

President Obama not only embraced JSOC and the CIA’s paramilitary division as the implementers of this smarter counterterrorism policy, but he essentially made their perspective of kill/capture the entire counterterrorism policy of the U.S. Government, and in doing so, empowered these forces that had largely existed in the shadows and on the fringes of American foreign policy and put them at the center of everything.

Very early on in the Obama administration, they convince President Obama to start bombing Yemen. In December of 2009, President Obama authorizes the first strike in Yemen. JSOC and the CIA told him that he was hitting an al-Qaeda training camp. They didn’t have enough drones to use there at the time because they were being used in Pakistan at the time for his escalated drone-bombing campaign, so they used cruise missiles with cluster munitions. I don’t know if many of you know what a cluster bomb is, but it’s basically like a flying land mine. It drops from the sky in a little parachute, and then it explodes over a multi-football-field radius and sends shrapnel in all directions. I’ve seen the aftermath of it the first time in the 1990s in Yugoslavia, and then later I saw it in Iraq. It shreds humans into ground beef if it hits them. It’s horrifying. This was the weapon that they used. Most countries in the world have agreed to a ban on cluster bombs. The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that continues to actively use cluster bombs.

So they cluster-bomb this place that they’ve told President Obama is an al-Qaeda training facility. But they didn’t say,

Hey, we bombed Yemen.

What happened is that the Yemeni government put out a press release saying that it had conducted air strikes against an al-Qaeda camp and they had killed 34 al-Qaeda members and it was very successful. The White House sent a cable of congratulations to the Yemeni dictator about his cooperation in fighting against terrorism. It turned out, though—and we know this because a Yemeni journalist went to the scene—that no other nation, certainly not Yemen, had the weapons that were used there that day. So the world then knew that the U.S. was starting to bomb Yemen. Munitions experts looked at all of the shrapnel, looked at the shell casings, looked at the control system that was on the Tomahawk cruise missiles, and determined beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was the U.S. and that they had started bombing Yemen.
Then they started doing drone strikes in Yemen.

And they started hunting people and they started creating these kill lists. Then they implemented these things called Terror Tuesday meetings. They sit around in secret and they actually use baseball-card-type graphics for statistics on potential people to kill. At times they have had baseball cards with teenage girls on them in certain Muslim countries. I don’t know that there has ever been an authorized strike against a teenage girl, but they have ended up on the board. They’re looking at these statistics, and through a secret process they’re determining every week who should live or die around the world at the hands of U.S. drone strikes. This has replaced any semblance of a legal process for dealing with the crime of terrorism—a bunch of people meeting in secret inside of the White House discussing who should live and who should die.

The stories that I’ve been covering have a connection here to Fort Collins, because the first American citizen that we know of that was directly targeted for assassination on orders from President Obama was a guy named Anwar al-Awlaki, who actually went to school here at CSU. He was an American citizen who was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico. His father was here as a visiting scholar from Yemen. He was born here and ended up coming here for university. During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, he became politicized here in Fort Collins and then ended up moving to Denver, where he became an imam. In 1995, his first child was born in Denver, named Abdulrahman Awlaki.

Awlaki himself, the older, Anwar Awlaki, was a very many prominent imam on 9/11. He was head of a big religious center called Dar Al-Hijrah Religious Center in Falls Church, Virginia. I remember seeing him on TV, because he was condemning the 9/11 attacks, was condemning al-Qaeda, was talking about the perversion of the religion of Islam by Osama bin Laden and others, was arguing that the U.S. had a right to go into Afghanistan, and was generally considered a part of the discourse and dialogue in Washington. He was profiled in the Washington Post, he was on the NewsHour on PBS, he was on Talk of the Nation on NPR.

In addition to talking about 9/11, he also as an imam was dealing with the hate crimes against so many Muslims around the country, where businesses were being attacked and taxi drivers were being attacked and students were being attacked, and people were starting to disappear, and there was this whole thing about secret INS detention centers, and then Guantánamo opened up. And you see this sort of radicalization or politicization in Awlaki, where he starts to cross this line and starts to get sharper and sharper. He ends up leaving the U.S. and, to make a long story short, goes back to Yemen. He has an increase in the popularity of his sermons around the world. A lot of young Muslims in the English-speaking diaspora were taken with his message, because he would include pop cultural references and was sort of living in modern times but telling older stories.

As he started to become more radical, the U.S. started to become concerned that he was going to inspire young people to potentially go to Afghanistan or elsewhere. So the U.S. tells Yemen to arrest Anwar Awlaki. They arrest him. This is the U.S. Government telling the human-rights-abusing government of Yemen to arrest one of their own citizens.

Arrest Anwar Awlaki. We want him kept in prison for four or five years so that people forget about him.

So they stick him in prison, and he ends up spending 18 months in prison, 17 in solitary confinement. He comes out of prison a totally changed person. His sermons become incredibly radical at that point. By the time Barack Obama comes into office, Anwar Awlaki had crossed the line from condemning U.S. wars around the world to actively calling on young people, young Muslims in the U.S., in Europe, and elsewhere, to engage in armed jihad in their own countries or to come to Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and join the mujahideen there in fighting against the dictators of those countries but also against the U.S.

I’ve listened to probably a thousand hours of Anwar Awlaki talking and am very familiar with his trajectory. Then I’ve seen all of the YouTube videos. Anwar Awlaki, in my mind, had very reprehensible ideas about the world. I think that the U.S. Government probably could have made a case against him in some form or another, especially when he called specifically for the assassination of individual cartoonists who had drawn demeaning pictures of the Prophet Muhammad in their cartoons. He actually listed their names in a publication and said people should go and kill them, shoot them. There was a young woman in Seattle, Washington, who actually had to go underground, change her name, be relocated as a result of that threat.

I don’t have all the intelligence or evidence that they have at the White House, and I am willing to believe that they had all sorts of evidence to indicate that Anwar Awlaki was involved in some sort of terrorism plot. They’ve never proven that, they’ve never shown that evidence, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for purposes of this story.

Let’s say he’s involved in all sorts of act of terrorism plotting. Why not indict him? You know where he is. It’s not like he’s in Afghanistan murdering U.S. troops. You know where he is. He’s in a place where you could probably snatch him fairly easily.

They never indict him with a crime. Instead—and this is a U.S. citizen—they engage in this secret process where Mr. constitutional lawyer, Nobel Peace Prize winner serves as the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, and ultimately the executioner of a U.S. citizen they had never bothered to charge with a crime.

They killed him in a drone strike in September of 2011, when he was in a village that had 10 small dwellings in it in a rural part of Yemen. They made no actual attempt that we’re aware of to try to capture him. There are some things that we’ve learned about this. There may have been an attempt that got aborted. But the point of it is, they knew where he was, they had him under surveillance for an entire month before they killed him, maybe longer, and then they killed him.

In that same strike where they killed Anwar Awlaki, they killed another American citizen named Samir Khan, who was a Pakistani American from North Carolina whose parents had actually been told shortly before he was killed that there were no charges against him, there was no indictment against him, and they were trying to encourage his parents to get him to come home. They told them that there were no charges against their son. He gets killed in that action.

So the news reaches the U.S. President Obama doesn’t say,

We killed one of our own citizens.

He announces that Anwar Awlaki has been killed in Yemen and that it’s a great victory for the U.S. And for the first time he uses a label that al-Qaeda itself never used and Awlaki himself never claimed—President Obama called him “the head of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.” Al-Qaeda is actually a remarkably transparent organization. They are very adept at taking credit for what they do and promoting their leaders and celebrating them as martyrs. They never claimed that he was a member of al-Qaeda. They certainly had an affinity for him, because his message was very consistent with theirs. But Obama labels him as “the head of external operations.”

The reaction to the killing of these two American citizens in a drone strike, neither of whom had been charged with any kind of a crime, fell into two camps in Washington: silence or celebration. Hillary Clinton and John McCain sounded like twins separated at birth in praising the strike. The only actual objection came from Dennis Kucinich on the one hand and Ron Paul on the other. Almost no one else in Washington raised a peep about this. In fact, one member of Congress was so excited about the killing of Samir Khan, this other American, that he said, if he wasn’t a target, then it was “a bonus,” it was “a two-fer,” like a two-for-one. They all talk in this sort of sports lingo. We’re talking about killing people. We’re talking about actions that are going to cause blowback and collateral damage.

Two weeks after this killing, Anwar Awlaki’s 16- year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was born in Denver in August of 1995, was sitting at an outdoor restaurant with his teenage cousin. He had just turned 16 years old. He’s sitting in this café—his father has been killed two weeks earlier—when a drone appears above them and a missile is fired and blows up the kid, his cousin, and their friends. The Obama administration has never explained why they killed that kid. It’s hard to imagine it’s a coincidence that two weeks after you kill the father you kill the son. They haven’t been able to identify a member of al-Qaeda that they actually killed. When the press reports first came out saying that Abdulrahman Awlaki, a 16-year-old American citizen, had been killed, an anonymous U.S. official said that he was 21 years old. Then the family produced his birth certificate from the State of Colorado showing that he had just turned 16. They tried to say,

Well, he was at a meeting of al-Qaeda figures, and a guy named Ibrahim al-Banna was killed with him.

Ibrahim al-Banna is still alive to this day.

Why was that drone strike authorized? I don’t have the answer to it, but I know what it’s very difficult to believe, which is that it was just a coincidence. In fact, I know from my own reporting that John Brennan, who now is the director of the CIA, said at the time that he didn’t believe it could be a coincidence, and he ordered a review to figure out why the kid was killed. The White House will not release that review. In fact, they won’t ever discuss any specific strikes. But the only public statement we really have from any U.S. official about this, other than anonymous officials saying it was an accident or he was collateral damage or all these things, was Robert Gibbs, who was the former White House press secretary. At the time he said what I am about to tell you, he was the spokesperson for President Obama’s reelection campaign. He was asked by a young, independent reporter at one of those press gaggles after one of the debates about the killing of Abdulrahman Awlaki. What Robert Gibbs told him was,

He should have had a more responsible father.

There are few things in history that are more reprehensible than blaming the killing of children on who their parents are—sins of the father, or whatever the saying. Robert Gibbs should be ashamed of himself, first of all.

The last time that I was on Rachel Maddow’s show—and I’m not sure that I will ever be invited back—Robert Gibbs was on right before me. Because who is Robert Gibbs today? He is a paid pundit for MSNBC. So Robert Gibbs is on MSNBC right before me talking about the economy or something. I come on and I’m talking about what I’m telling you about, the Awlaki killings, with Rachel Maddow. At the beginning of the interview I said,

Well, Rachel, you just had on Robert Gibbs, who is on your payroll, and he should be ashamed of himself for what he said about this killing, because he said that Abdulrahman Awlaki should have had a more responsible father.

Rachel Maddow was livid with me. She would barely say goodbye to me when I left. I have never been invited back on that show. I called out Robert Gibbs, who had just been on right before me.

Again, I don’t know why that kid was killed. But the answer to why says a lot about who we are as a society. We don’t define our values based on how we treat law-abiding citizens. We don’t base our values on how we treat the people we like or how we view those in power, whether we voted for them or not. When your principles are tested is when it’s tough. Your principle on the death penalty is not tested on the exoneree or the person who DNA evidence is going to save the day for. It’s tested on someone who is dead guilty, who is a serial child murderer and rapist. That’s where your principle is tested on whether you support or oppose the death penalty on moral grounds. If you’re against it for those people, then that’s an actual principle. If you start to say,

Well, I’m against it in this case and that case,

that’s politics.

The same is true of the times in which we live. It’s easy—easy—to be against these things when cartoonish villains like Dick Cheney are in power. And I truly do imagine Dick Cheney sitting in a cave somewhere saying,

Let’s [beep] the world today.

I actually think that that guy—I don’t see Obama in that way at all. I certainly don’t want Republicans picking Supreme Court justices and having any control over the health care of women in our society. I definitely don’t want Rand Paul to be running our economy. But at the same time, I don’t want a guy who people think is such a great alternative to the Republicans’ militarism cleaning up the empire so that it can continue on and justifying things that, if a Republican did them, people would be in the streets about. It’s like many liberals have checked their consciences at the door of the Obama party. We’re going to look back years from now and realize that lines were crossed here that we’re never going to be able to go back and rethink those decisions. We have crossed some very, very serious lines.

I talked about the Beast before, the National Security Beast. That beast knows that it can wait out any president, for four years or for eight years. Some presidents try to tangle with the Beast or they maybe want to try to put it a little bit in the corner or cut some part of it off. But at the end of the day that Beast knows that this is a war economy in this country, that the only beneficiaries of American foreign policy are huge corporations. Those are the only entities in our society that have benefited from any of this: major corporations who make a killing off of the killing.

No matter what issue you organize around or you find important in your life, whether it is access to comprehensive health care for everyone, whether it’s the struggle for immigrants to gain their rights and preserve their rights in this country, or it’s police brutality or it’s prisons or it’s the environment or it’s issues about war or neoliberal economic policies, whatever issues you find important in your day-to-day life, nothing will ever change in this society until we get corporations out of our political process. Nothing.

In some countries you take a suitcase full of cash and you pay off the dictator, and that’s how it works. In this country we’re a little more sophisticated. We have a legalized form of corruption and bribery called campaign finance. That’s where corporations can purchase members of the U.S. Congress. And almost every single member of Congress is bought by some big corporate interest. Ordinary people cannot compete with the huge bundling of these megacorporations, of the drowning of the airwaves in ads. The war industry knows which way the wind is blowing. If you want to know who is going to win any given election, start to track who the war industry is giving money to.

They gave way more money to Barack Obama than they did to John McCain, because they knew from their own internal analysis that Barack Obama was going to win. What’s interesting is that active-duty troops gave more contributions to Ron Paul than to any of the other candidates, which gives you a sense that when we’re all told the military, hoo-ha, we’re doing this for the troops, actually a lot of the troops are fed up with all of this and want it to end. I think that was a statement for why he got so much money from them.

We are at an all-time low in the state of media in our country. Why is that? It’s because of an utter failure on the part of journalists and media organizations to present information to the American people that they can use to make informed decisions about what policies to support and what policies to oppose. Where I think we see an example of what really powerful media coverage is in the aftermath of these school shootings or incidents like the Boston Marathon bombing.

Remember, in the Boston Marathon bombing, three people were killed. One was an American citizen who was a woman who was a graduate student, another was a graduate student who was Chinese and she was from Taiwan, and then the third was this 8-year-old boy. How many of you remember the picture that that boy had drawn shortly before he was drawn up? It was a peace sign. It went viral all over Facebook and it was on the news. His parents, you watch them on TV, and their lips are quivering trying to explain how incredible their son was and not break down while they are doing it. Barack Obama spoke about those three people who died and he told stories about each of them, including this woman who was from Taiwan.

There was a blog post the next day that went viral around the Chinese-speaking world. The title of the blog post was “Where you die matters.” The story that was told in it was, Barack Obama, the most powerful person in the world would never have said the name of that woman if she had died in a factory making components for iPhones that were destined for use in Western markets. But because she died in that bombing, her life actually mattered enough to be recognized by the most powerful person in the world.

I’ve thought a lot about that, and I’ve thought about the aftermath of the Newtown shooting. When I was watching all that coverage, the endless O.J. Simpson-style coverage we have of everything, and it’s awful and sensationalized and horrible, I didn’t have any real emotional reaction to watching that other than just being horrified at all these little kids being killed. But then the next day the front page of The New York Times was—I’m sure people will remember this—was just the names and the ages of the people killed. This name, 6 years old; this name 7 years old; this name, 6 years old. I cried looking at that. I wondered, Why is that?

I’ve come to the realization that it’s because looking at that list of names and seeing those ages, you can imagine someone you know, whether it’s your child or your niece or your nephew or your cousin or your younger sibling. You see yourself in that story, you see your neighbor or your loved one in that story, so you have empathy. And it causes a reaction and it makes you ultimately, then, angry, and you say,

We have to do something about this in our society.

We don’t have enough of a debate in our society about guns, about legally purchased guns, not to mention guns that are being sold on the down low. But we had more of a discussion about it in this country than we had in a while. And why? It was because people were horrified and they empathized and they said,

This is enough. This can’t keep happening.

What if our coverage of war looked like that, too? What if when we covered drone strikes in Yemen, we never used “collateral damage” or “casualties,” but instead we actually understood the lives and deaths of those who live on the other side of the missiles. If we heard stories about a little girl in Yemen who was killed, a picture she had drawn a few days beforehand. Or if we learned about the heroic act of someone who, after a drone strike, ran and pulled someone out of a house that was burning? What if we knew those stories? I’m not saying that this would all end, but what I’m saying is that we would have totally different discussion in this country if we weren’t just inundated with that crap reality television but instead had some part of our day spent reflecting on the lives involved in all of these wars—the lives lost, the soldiers who were killed, the civilians who are forced to live in that way, and the officials, many of whom never have their children in danger in these war zones, who seem all too willing to vote to have other people’s children go to kill and be killed. If we had that, then we would have empathy. Then I think we would have a totally different debate in the country.

I really think that is part of our challenge in this society, is to get those corporations out of our lives and get empathy back into it. Thank you.


Basic issues about corporate influence in the media. I think it’s an interesting discussion. One thought, as you were talking, that popped into my head was how incredible these major acts of whistleblowing have been lately. If you think of everything that Chelsea Manning did, it started with the collateral murder video. Then there were the Iraq war logs that were released, the Afghan war logs that were released. And then when all the State Department cables were released. We all, of course, followed that story. And what an incredible injustice that Chelsea Manning is in prison right now. An incredible injustice. But what happened was that these powerful corporate journalists who work for big publications, who are used to being the recipients of any leaked document, especially those coming officially from the White House, were knocked off their pedestal. And all of a sudden someone creates a system where we can all go online and look up, What did the U.S. do in Nigeria, what did the U.S. do in Libya, What did the U.S. do in Mexico, and we’re reading through these cables.

There was something that was so refreshingly democratic about that that I think it will be hard for them to go back on it. I think it really changed journalism. The Washington Post has done some interesting coverage with the NSA documents that they’ve gotten. I’ve been critical of it, but I do think that we’re in an era now where a lot of citizen journalists are calling out on famous journalists. And the forum where it happens most frequently is on Twitter, but you will see in real time especially young people who are really sharp and creative go after these iconic figures and take them down. I love searching what people say to Nicholas Kristof, because there are so many people that are just brilliant in their critiques of Nicholas Kristof. But also of all sorts of journalists. I get it, too. And sometimes errors are pointed out that you didn’t realize.

I think the power of social media, the future of good journalism is going to boil down to this: How to take the innovation and the creativity of so many young minds in our society and around the world, who are far more tech-savvy than I am and understand how to communicate in very rapid ways, and fuse it with the old-school, proven tactics of good muckraking journalism. We need a sort of modern version of I.F. Stone’s document digging, where we still have fact checkers and we have editors and we have some semblance of peer review and we get away from our computers and go out into the world and do actual reporting. If we fuse those two things together, then I have a lot of hope. I see a lot of young journalists and aspiring journalists talking about those kinds of alternative models.

The question is how to fund them. Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and I started working with Pierre Omidyar from eBay in part because he said we could have autonomy. All of us are trying to figure out how to fund good adversarial journalism, and it’s tough. Community radio stations are struggling, community media outlets are struggling. But I absolutely have hope.

And I also think that media consolidation is a very serious crisis and is fundamentally antidemocratic. Those airwaves don’t belong to CNN and Fox and MSNBC. Let’s be honest. What’s the range of views there? MSNBC is like one huge Obama pep rally or an Obama for America meet-up. And then Fox is like a parody of itself. Saturday Night Live doesn’t have to make fun of Fox News, because you can just watch Fox News and pretend it’s Saturday Night Live and it’s much funnier. And then CNN is sort of like Xanax on TV.

The question was about education and how much of an emphasis should we place on current events or current policies in education. It depends. Obviously, I think that from a very young age kids should be taught that you should be paying attention to everything happening around you in your world, regardless of what you want to be in life. It used to be that your parents could say to you when you’re sort of hitting second, third, fourth grade,

You should read part of the paper in the morning,

or they’ll slide it over to you. Now kids all have these devices. And what are they actually looking at? They’re looking at Instagram, they’re looking at ask-fm, they’re sending Snapchat pictures to each other. I worry about that. And I do think that we have to make it a priority for them to pay attention, particularly to what’s happening locally around them.

Also, stories from throughout history can provide great inspiration for students. That’s why I still think to this day Howard Zinn’s work is like dropping a piece of magic into a kid’s lap at some point in their development. I think that’s part of how we fight for a better society. Teachers are so important, and they’re so disregarded in our society—underpaid, undervalued. There’s a war against teachers, there’s a war against particularly teachers’ unions. If we lose teachers who actually care about the world and care enough to try to make the world understandable to their students, that harms our society.

I wish more current events curriculum existed. My sister is a teacher and my sister-in-law also. Both of them talk about this. I was just at their schools last week in the Midwest, in the Chicago area and in Milwaukee. One of the schools that I went to was well funded and the kids asked great questions, and the other one is a very poor school with no funding, and they seemed totally clueless about what I was talking about. The same age groups; totally different universes. There’s a lot of disparity in the treatment of young people in this country in our educational system. But it’s great if people like you actually care enough about the world that we live in to make sure that it’s in the classroom, too.

I was counting the other day, because someone asked me this. I’ve known 13 journalists who have been killed since 9/11, people I knew personally. Thirteen. I think a lot of people who get involved with war reporting or conflict reporting, it all starts with an initial act of incredible stupidity and naïveté, where you say, “Oh, I’ll be fine.” And then you look back and you’ve been doing it for three years, and you realize that you took a lot of risks that were probably idiotic. So there is not like some glamorous path to how to be a war reporter and be safe.

Most of the people I know who spend a lot of time doing war journalism, didn’t study journalism. They either studied something else or they were working as a technician on like a satellite crew. Nick Robertson, who is actually one of the best reporters at CNN right now, was Wolf Blitzer’s satellite uplink technician during the Gulf War and didn’t really have journalistic training. He was the tech guy and then ended up becoming a reporter. Ivan Watson, another reporter, was the sound guy for CBS radio and ended up becoming a correspondent. I know people who rode their motorcycles from one part of Europe to Bosnia during the war in Yugoslavia and started shooting pictures and sending in story pitches. A lot of the journalists right now covering Egypt or Libya don’t necessarily have journalism degrees. Most journalists covering war are not Americans. Most journalists are local to whatever country they’re in. There’s no one path.

What happens in black communities every day in this country from the police? The Halliburton, Blackwater thing. Halliburton and Blackwater worked together for many, many years, starting very certainly on in the wars. Blackwater has gone through five different name changes and is not the company that it once was. There are hundreds of these companies now. It’s a huge, thriving industry—private security, private intelligence. We talk a lot about the NSA and its violation of the privacy of Americans and others around the world alike. That’s real. Believe me, I know, because I’ve seen the Snowden documents firsthand.

But in many ways the greatest violators of our privacy or our rights are local police forces, the FBI, the DEA. Various entities at local and state levels are far more into our communications than the NSA is in terms of actively monitoring them and pursuing them. There is a paramilitarization of law enforcement in this country. Police forces can get equipment from the military donated to them. After the military leaves Iraq or Afghanistan, they’re giving their military equipment to local police forces. That was part of what I was alluding to earlier. I’m not as concerned about the CIA or the FBI doing drone strikes in America as I am about all of this sort of permanent state of war bleeding down into the culture of what is called law enforcement in this country.

They are definitely going to start using drones, and they have in some cases. When the former L.A. police officer was engaged in that shooting last year, drones were used to try to track him down and hunt him. Eric Rudolph, whom they were hunting for many, many years in connection with the Olympic bombing, they used drones to try to locate him. They weren’t weaponized drones. Maybe someday they will use weaponized drones. I think it’s more likely that they will use it along the U.S.-Mexico border than they will in what we think of as conventional law enforcement activity in the U.S. But it’s the paramilitarization of law enforcement that I think is of really, really great concern in communities across this country.

Other Alternative Radio Jeremy Scahill programs:
License to Kill
Blackwater: Mercenary Army

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Posted in All dumbed down, Big picture, Corporate bonding and domination, Department of Offense, Follies of empire, Kafkaesque Amerika, Liberal ineffectiveness, Muslims in America, Overseas Contingency Operations and Kinetic Military Action | Leave a comment


Ray McGovern
University Temple United Methodist Church
Seattle, WA
17 October 2013

What is one to do when confronted by blatant criminal actions and illegalities? Look the other way? Punch out at 5 and go home? That’s not what Edward Snowden did. His disclosures have informed and educated the people of the United States and the world about secret surveillance and massive data-gathering that the NSA and other government agencies are engaged in within the U.S. and abroad. And Snowden’s reward? Hounded. Threatened. Defamed. His passport has been revoked. Instead of encouraging whistleblowers the Obama administration has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Open up your mouth to report wrongdoing and corruption and you’ll have the book thrown at you. Obama has the dubious distinction of prosecuting more whistleblowers than any administration in U.S. history. It has criminalized not only the truth tellers but also the journalists who report on their revelations.

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Ray McGovern is a 27-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency. He helped form Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence. Sam Adams was McGovern’s colleague at the CIA. McGovern and several other former intelligence officials went to Russia in October to honor Edward Snowden with the Sam Adams Award. Ray McGovern also works for Tell the Word, a ministry of the inner-city Washington D.C. Church of the Saviour.

You can listen to Ray McGovern speak for himself here.

I was attracted to this very attractive offer being an analyst for the CIA, where you would be given in your little inbox—and most of you are probably old enough to remember that we used to have inboxes made of wood. Can you believe it? When I talk at colleges, they say,

What kind of inbox was this?

Into our inbox would come all manner of information: from press, from spies, from photography, from intercepted messages, from wherever. The FBI even shared information with us every now and then. We would be responsible—I’m far enough away from Washington to use the following word—we would be accountable. We would be accountable for looking at what information was available, and if it were important enough, we would serve it up to the president. Somebody might correct the syntax or the spellings, but there was no political thing on this. We told it like it is, and we had career protection for telling it like it was.

What you need is documents. My friend Dan Ellsberg always says,

Don’t just speak out. Bring the documents.

And Chelsea Manning did that fairly well, didn’t she? 700,000 documents.

And to his credit, Ed Snowden went through the documents that really needed to be released and figured a way to get them out.

What I’m saying here is that the Sam Adams award is made in recognition of Sam. He did the work but he didn’t go out of channels. Most of our whistleblowers had to. Ed Snowden is the par excellence example of that, because he saw what happened to Bradley Manning. He said,

I don’t want to be tortured by the Marines for eight months.

And he saw what happened to Tom Drake.

Tom Drake is the NSA senior executive who released information about billions and billions of dollars being wasted on a system that deprived us of our rights under the Fourth Amendment, where he and other experts in house had created a system that preserved those rights and was more efficient. He went to the Baltimore Sun and told them finally. First he went through all kinds of channels: Defense, Congress, everywhere else. He didn’t get anywhere. So what did they do when he told them? The Justice Department charged him with 10 felonies under the Espionage Act. He was going to be put away for years, he was told.

Long story short, Jesselyn Radack, who is a lawyer with the Government Accountability Project, but was a lawyer with the Justice Department, took up the cause. She did the PR of this. He used the public defender of the State of Maryland for his defense. He didn’t have any money. And at the end the federal judge said,

You so-called lawyers from the Department of Justice, you should be really ashamed of yourselves. This case had no basis from the beginning. You wasted all our time, and you put Tom Drake through four years of persecution. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

What did Tom do? I don’t know how this works legally, but he pled out to a misdemeanor for having exceeded the authorized use of a government computer, in other words, he wrote a letter to his wife or something on a government computer.

The point here is that Ed Snowden watched what happened to Tom Drake. So here we are in Moscow, and we’re ushered into this nice dining room. And there’s Ed Snowden. I let Tom go before me. Snowden looks at him, and you could just see it in his eyes:

This guy saved my life. I knew what I had to do. I never could have achieved my mission if I had gone through channels. So I figured out a way to do it.

And Tom Drake is looking at Ed Snowden, and he’s thinking,

My God, I never thought any good would come out of those four years of persecution, but this is a good.

I was looking at this and thinking,

This is wonderful, this is really wonderful.

We had a chance to ask Snowden,

Your major concern, of course, was that you could sacrifice all this, give up everything, maybe your life, you said you were willing to do that, and nothing is going to happen, right, nothing happens. Are you aware, Ed, that a lot of stuff is happening?

He said,

Yes, I am.

Coleen Rowley and Jesselyn Radack, both lawyers, really up on the legislation that’s being prepared now, some of it quite promising, were able to fill him in on some of those details that haven’t been on the Web. If it’s been on the Web, Snowden has seen it. He’s really engaged.

I’ll just say one more thing about Snowden. People say,

Why did he go to Moscow? Did the Chinese turn him down?

Dianne Feinstein,

He’s a traitor.

I’ll tell you who the traitor is. It ain’t Snowden. What he did was very artfully figured out, a way to get in touch in a confidential way with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. He arranged to meet them in Hong Kong and get all the stuff out. Because he knew he could get to Hong Kong from Honolulu without being intercepted and discovered, he couldn’t get to Latin America any other way.

So there he is in Hong Kong, meets with them, gives them the stuff. And, of course, they’re journalists, they’re not Good Samaritans or Red Cross people. So they go back and write their stories.

And there’s Ed Snowden. Hong Kong is sort of dithering. Who saved him? WikiLeaks. Julian Assange sent his right-hand person there, Sarah Harrison, and said,

Do what you can, see if you can get him—he’s got to go through Moscow if he wants to get to Havana. So talk to the Russians.

So she goes to the consulate there and arranges for him to get out of Dodge. And he just got out of Hong Kong before they were going to keep him there.

Was he headed to Russia? No, he wasn’t going to end up in Russia. I was comparing him in my mind to Columbus. I was thinking, I remember a history book that started out this way about the discovery of the New World. America was discovered by somebody who was looking for something else. The next two centuries were spent trying to figure a way through it or around it. It was named after somebody who had nothing to do with the discovery of America, and the people there were called people from the other side of the world. History is very chancy like that, very ironic. Here’s Ed Snowden. He wants safety, he wants security, he wants not to be killed. So he wants to get to Latin America. When he got to Moscow, he wanted to get around it or through it. He couldn’t.

And in the end, because of the U.S. imperiousness, John Kerry saying,

All right, Vladimir Putin, we know there’s no extradition agreement here, but you must give up Ed Snowden because we want him and we say you must.

That was a big mistake. Vladimir Putin doesn’t take kindly to that kind of thing. And besides, you can seek the high moral ground by obeying international law. There used to be some premium in obeying international law. There still is among some countries. So he said,

Yes, come on in here.

What’s the result? The height of irony. Ed Snowden is in the safest place on the globe. Why? General Michael Hayden, who was head of the CIA and the NSA, suggested openly,

I’ve got a list that I’d like to put Ed Snowden on, a different kind of list, not a list for an award.

And Mike Rogers, head of the House Intelligence Committee chimed in,

Yeah, yeah, I can help you out on that.

You know what list I’m referring to: The kill list for assassination—the one that President Obama on Tuesday mornings carefully reviews and decides who will live and who will die, including American citizens.

I hope none of you are shocked to hear that. There used to be a Fifth Amendment that would prevent that, but that’s gone by the boards, just like the First and the Fourth. So Michael Hayden and Michael Rogers have said he should be killed. I said to Snowden,

Are you aware that these guys have said that?

He just looked at me and kind of shook his head like,

Yes, I’m aware.

Like, what’s become of our country? This is not the Mafia. They’re not supposed to be the Mafia.

The thing with Snowden was just beautiful. We had a formal ceremony to give him the award. We each said something, Jesselyn Radack, Tom Drake, Colleen Rowley and myself. Jesselyn read something from Albert Camus.
She said,

Edward Snowden, you are in good company.

Snowden had talked about “the work of a generation.” He wrote a statement for the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs. And Jesselyn went to Geneva, I think it was, to read it. The title he gave it was “The Work of a Generation Starts Here.” She pointed out that “the wager of our generation” is how Albert Camus described what Ed had called “the work of a generation.” It was 1957, the year that Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Radack said,

In 1957, Camus expressed hope in “the quality of a new generation and its increasing unwillingness to adopt slogans or ideologies and to return to more tangible values.” He wrote, “We have nothing to lose except everything. So let’s go ahead. This is the wager of our generation. If we are to fail, it is better, in any case, to have stood on the side of those who refuse to be dogs and are resolved to pay the price that must be paid so that man can be something more than a dog.”

Camus rejected what he called “the paltry privileges granted to those who adapt themselves to this world,” adding that “those individuals who refuse to give in will have to stand apart, and they must accept this. Personally, I have never wanted to stand apart. For this is a sort of solitude, which is certainly the harshest thing our era forces upon us. I feel its weight, believe me. But, nevertheless, I should not want to change eras, for I know and respect the greatness of this one. Moreover, I have always thought that the maximum danger implied the maximum hope.”

In December 1957, the month he won the Nobel Prize, Camus warned strongly against inaction: “Remaining aloof has always been possible in history. When people did not approve, they could always keep silent or talk of something else. Today everything is changed and even silence has dangerous implications.”

I think that has relevance to today.

Jesselyn Radack continued,

A key figure in the French Resistance, Camus in July 1943 published a “Letter to a German Friend,” an old friend that he had had for decades, which began as follows: “You said to me: ‘The greatness of my country [Germany] is beyond price. Anything is good that contributes to its greatness. Those who, like us young Germans, are lucky enough to find a meaning in the destiny of our nation must sacrifice everything else.’”

Camus, “No,” I told you, “I cannot believe that everything must be subordinate to a single end. There are means that cannot be excused. And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want for my country a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.”

You retorted, “Well, then you don’t love your country.”

Jesselyn wrapped it up by saying,

Edward, that may have a familiar ring to you. But, of course, the truth is the very opposite. Let us take one more cue from Albert Camus, who emphasized that “Truth needs witnesses.” We are honored, Edward, to be here at this time and this place to be your witnesses. You have the full measure of our gratitude and support.

That was just one of the statements. Colleen Rowley read another and I read a little Russian poem. It was really interesting. We were hosted officially by Anatoly Kucherena, who is a civil rights lawyer and one of the lawyers who is supporting Edward Snowden. He’s a great big, wonderful, burly Russian guy. He gave us all gifts through a translator, inscribed books. The last one he gave out was Pushkin. And that gave me a chance to try to follow Cicero’s dictum of trying to render your audience “benevolent, attentive, and docile,” because I know a lot of Pushkin.

And I know one poem of Pushkin—does anybody here know Russian? Usually up in the Northwest we have some. I’ll translate it, anyway. It’s a poem Pushkin wrote when he was behind bars in Kishinev, now in Moldavia, I guess it is, because he spoke out, he wrote subversive things in his poems.

This one is titled “Usnik,” which means prisoner or somebody kept in captivity. He’s sitting in his little cell and he’s looking out the window. It goes like this:

I’m sitting behind the bars of this window in the dark, dank cell, cooped up like an eagle who can’t fly away. He looks out and he sees this crow waving his wings and picking up a piece of a dead animal and throwing it at the window. He’s clutching at this thing. And then he looks into the window and he looks at me as though he has the same thoughts that I have. He says to me, Let’s fly away. We are free birds. Let’s go. We need to fly away to that place beyond the snow-capped mountains, that I just saw flying in yesterday, beyond the blue seas that surround our country and beyond, where only the wind and I can fly.

Why did I take you through all that? Pushkin is their national hero. My feeble attempt to render him probably doesn’t do him justice, but that sort of gave us a real welcome with Kucherena. It was just fortuitous that the book he happened to give me was Pushkin short stories translated into English.

Pushkin lived in the first part of the 19th century, so he was part of that insurrection that really never got off the ground. He spoke out in favor of the Decembrists, which was really the first Russian revolution. These guys had chased Napoleon back into Western Europe, and they looked around and said,

Hey, this is a pretty nice place. How do they rule themselves?

They heard about constituzia, constitution. So without much preparation they drew themselves up before the square in St. Petersburg and shouted

Constanine y Constituzia! [Bring Constantine, Tsar Nicholas’s brother, into power and the constitution. ]

No other Russians except the ones that had chased Napoleon knew what constituzia was. They knew who Constantine was. But the tsar just brought his folks out and they shot some of them and imprisoned the rest. But that’s a measure of how people find out a different way of doing things and act on it.

I want to say a couple things about General Keith Alexander. Let’s have a moment of rejoicing that Keith Alexander is going. Good riddance. Keith Alexander is for the next few months still the head of the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command. Cyber Command? Yes. You’ve heard about how we very artfully with the Israelis set back the Iranian nuclear development program with the Stuxnet? We’re pretty smart. We can do that. How smart is that?

Just as an aside here, the battles of the future are not going to depend on battleships or aircraft carriers or B-52s or F-35s. It’s going to be cyber. So the great big advantage that the U.S. now has, to its detriment, of spending half of our tax money on defense, is not going to amount to a hill of beans. You know why? Because well-educated Iranians, well-educated Chinese and Japanese, that’s all it takes to do this cyber warfare. There are just as many of them, and some of them are better educated, as there are of us. Add to that the fact that NSA and our government, to the degree it wants to do this, cannot do it without people like Edward Snowden. They just can’t do it.

So this whole generation has grown up that is technically incredibly proficient, and they want to have good jobs. And a lot of them end up at the NSA and other places because there is good pay. But some of them, I don’t know, maybe 5%, have a conscience, and some of them remember the solemn oath that all of us who serve in the armed forces take to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. That’s what Snowden remembers. He was a soldier for a while. That’s what I remember. We talked about that over dinner. Is this an oath that has an expiration date? No, it doesn’t. So what are we to do? Are we supposed to sit back and watch this happen?

When I’m doing interviews these days, people don’t seem to have any concept of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. I know you do, but I’m going to read it to you anyway, because you can see just by hearing it how much flouted it is by what’s been happening.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Put that up against the dragnet, collect-everything mentality. The natural conclusion is that there’s probable cause to believe that all of us are a bunch of terrorists. How many terrorists here? Because we’re all suspected terrorists. That’s a measure of what we’re up against.

I said that I’d do something about the empire here, so I’ll say something about the empire. I’ll say what I learned first about the empire when I was about 8 years old and my Irish grandfather said,

Raymond, you’ve heard about the British Empire. Do you know why they say that the sun never sets on the British Empire?

I said,

Yes, I think I know, grandfather.

No, no, you don’t know. Sit down there and I’ll tell you what it is. The sun never sets on the British Empire because the good Lord would never trust the British in the dark.

I was born a week before Hitler began the war with Poland. And even in the womb, I suppose, I sensed that people were really upset about what was happening. I grew up in that atmosphere and I remember a lot of it. After the war, 1948, when I was 9, here’s what the first policy paper of the newly created State Department’s Policy Planning Staff said. This was written by George Kennan, someone who used to be my hero. He was ambassador to the Soviet Union, Russian expert, author of the containment policy. He really wrote well about Moscow and so on. This is what he wrote in that paper. This was to set the policy for the U.S. after the war.

We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of the its population. Our real task in the coming period is to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day- dreaming. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford the luxury of altruism. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives, such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.

George Kennan, I later learned, was responsible for making the CIA a hybrid. President Truman knew what happened at Pearl Harbor. He was hell-bent and determined that wouldn’t happen again, there would be no surprises. There would be a central place, therefore, Central Intelligence Agency, where in that inbox would come all kinds of information. And somebody would be held accountable for looking at it and warning about these things. Most of you know that before Pearl Harbor there were all manner of little things floating around—from the FBI, from the code breakers, from the people in the embassy in Tokyo, from the FBI. Where was the Japanese ambassador? And there was a little submarine in Honolulu harbor. Where was the Japanese fleet?

Does anybody know?

Oh, we lost track of the Japanese fleet.

That was not going to happen again. So therefore the Central Intelligence Agency. This agency would report directly to the president, not to the Pentagon. Truman knew that the Pentagon will always say that the Soviets were 12 feet tall. He knew they weren’t 12 feet tall. The State Department would say they were only 5 feet tall. So he needed people who had no agenda except to tell the truth. I know. Even out here in the West people would wince and say,

Right, right. An agency with no agenda. Give me a break.

You say that in Washington, they just stare in disbelief. But it was true. When we were hired, Sam Adams and I, we were told we could tell it like it is. And almost always we were able to do that. There were exceptions, but almost always we could do that. That’s what Truman wanted.

What happened? After World War II these very imaginative, very courageous people came home from the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services. They had worked miracles in Europe and in the Far East. They came home to well-deserved applause. And they said,

Thanks a lot for the applause, but should we hang around here? Do you still need us, or should we go back to our law firms or corporations, back to academe?

1947 was when this all was happening. The Soviets had overrun Eastern Europe, they were threatening Greece and Turkey, and even Italy and France were in some danger. The KGB was all around the world trying to overthrow governments. So the question answered itself: Of course we need you.

Okay, all’s fair in love and war, but then some idiot—maybe that’s the best word I can find—said,

We’re creating this secret agency for analysis. They’re going to have their own clandestine collection capability, because they need some spies to get the stuff they can’t get from the media, so let’s put them in with the analysts.

The legislation was changed by one sentence about inserted. It said,

The Director of Central Intelligence shall perform such other duties and tasks from time to time as the President of the United States shall direct.

This gives the president of the United States the capability to have his own personal Gestapo. All he needs is the right guy in charge of the intelligence community. If you don’t believe me, just look at what George Tenet and George Bush did together. Enhanced interrogation techniques? That comes from a German phrase, verschärfte Vernehmung. What’s the translation? Enhanced interrogation techniques. Where was it found? In the Gestapo handbook. What were these techniques? The same ones. That’s the background of how the CIA has a structural fault from the very beginning.

Why do I mention that? Because these swashbuckling guys who were going to overthrow governments were encouraged to do so by my hero, George Kennan. He was largely responsible for this hybrid. That was the 1947 National Security Act. It created the Defense Department and the Air Force and the National Security Council as well as the CIA, so it was a big deal. Anyhow, that gave these operators the means and the profile to get all the money to do whatever they were told.

One of the first things they were told was,

Hey, there’s this upstart in Iran, the guy who was actually elected by the Iranians. Get this. He doesn’t realize that the oil underneath the sands of Iran belongs to British Petroleum. He thinks that the Iranians should share more of the proceeds from this oil. So he threatened to, actually, did start, nationalizing the oil.

So what happened? Well, the British had been at this for a long time. Remember what my grandfather told me. So they took the fledgling CIA under their wing. This is six years into after its creation. This is what you do when you have an upstart Third World dictator—well, he was actually elected, but it doesn’t matter. This is what you have to do. So, MI6 and the CIA overthrew Mossadegh, who was Time Man of the Year in 1951, the only freely elected person in Persian history. Who did they bring in? The Shah, with his hated secret police, SAVAK, who were just as bad as the Gestapo. But he was on our side. And he didn’t like the Russians. If you didn’t like the Russians, it’s just like being against terrorists: It doesn’t matter what else you do, you have our support. That was 1953.

In 1954 the same thing happened in Guatemala, because the Guatemalans thought maybe United Fruit shouldn’t own so much of their land, maybe the peasants should have some.

That was the history of all this. It’s a very sad history. I just want you to know that the operations directorate has always been separate from the analysis directorate. It depended on the head of the intelligence community as to whether it did the right thing or the wrong thing. And the president, of course. One fellow that I served under directly, Bill Colby, must have learned from past mistakes, but he was the most courageous. When it came out that there was a whole bunch of abuses in the 1950s and 1960s, he defied Kissinger’s admonition not to tell the truth to Congress. He told the truth to Congress. He said,

Look, I’m a lawyer, and I respect the law. This is the law. I’m going to tell Congress about the abuses.

Those abuses included, of course, his predecessor, Richard Helms having instigated the coup in Chile in 1973. Helms was brought up on charges. He was going to be convicted. He pled nolo contendere. I guess that’s what they let white-collar people plead to sometimes.

And you know what, folks? He went back to CIA headquarters. He was already out of the CIA. He went back to CIA headquarters. I’ve never seen such a crowd in our mammoth cafeteria welcoming him, passing around the hat. And the $2,000 or $10,000, whatever, he had to pay was collected within the first hour. A couple of us analysts were peeking in from the shadows there. I said,

This really is two different and distinct agencies.

I thought what Colby did was exactly right, courageous. Of course, he got canned by Kissinger right after that. And he met a very suspicious death. And that’s another story.

That’s just by way of saying that the CIA has kind of a hybrid thing and that there are the Tom Fingars but there are also the Richard Helmses and the George Tenets. And every time I go to an airport and have to do all that charade, I think disrespectfully of George Tenet, because he had the power to share more information with the terrorism guy in the White House, Richard Clarke, and he had the power to speak out when he saw that Condoleezza Rice was not taking this seriously. As you know, they didn’t talk about al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden until one week before 9/11.

I think that the good news is what I call the Noah principle. I think more of us—Chris Hedges and others—are beginning to realize that we should follow the Noah principle. And that is, no more awards for predicting rain; awards only for building arks. What arks are we going to build? The situation is pretty critical, in my view. The powers that be have rolled up the wagons in a circle, and the National Defense Authorization Act is, I think, probably the most revealing thing. This is the one that allows somebody from—what is it called now?—Lewis McCord to come in here and take McGovern to an undisclosed location without charge or anything. But not forever. Just until there are no more terrorists. That reversed history since the Civil War, when southern whites were using the U.S. Army to bring in slavery again after Reconstruction. And now they can use the U.S. Army to do this.

Why did they do that?

As I watched that, I couldn’t believe it. Here is the Senate. I saw John McCain and Lindsey Graham and all of those people, and I thought, Well, they’re behind it. But you know what? When it came back from the White House, Carl Levin, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, was asked by one of the Democratic senators,

We didn’t include arresting American citizens. How did that get in there?

And Levin said,

Well, the White House put that in there.

As if to say the White House put it in and we couldn’t take it out? Isn’t that a telling thing? The White House put it in there. And everybody says,

Oh, the White House put it in there.

So it was the executive and the Congress. Why do you think they wanted to make a law that stringent, to use the Army against us? Martial law. What were they afraid of? Bear in mind, this was two years ago. What was going on?

[Audience] Occupy.

You got it. I was interviewed about this right after it happened. I was sitting somewhere and thinking,

What’s changed over the last several months?

The only thing I could think of was Occupy. And I said,

They’re afraid of us.

Up until then we had thousands. But suppose there were tens of thousands. Suppose there were a hundred thousand surrounding the Congress and the White House and they couldn’t get home to their cocktails in Georgetown? Who were they going to call? They could call the park police. The park police were on our side. They let us camp out right in the middle of Washington. How about the capital police? The capital police, with all due respect, they’re good at operating those things that you have to walk through to make sure you don’t have a weapon on you, but not much else. The district police. Well, the district police are increasingly aware that they are part of the 99%. And small wonder that they realize that.

So suppose something really happens. Suppose the flag goes up. Suppose we are surrounded. Who can we call on? The U.S. Army. The generals, such as there are, are predominantly creatures of the system. They will do whatever advances their profile and career. I hate to say that, but it’s true.

And the people who populate the so-called volunteer Army. It’s a poverty draft, folks. And that is a shame on our country. These are mostly people from towns in this country of less than 50,000 people and from the inner city. They have no prospect of a job or of a good education. It’s a poverty draft. And it’s been ingrained in them to do what they’re told. Witness that terrible WikiLeaks collateral murder video. I showed that earlier today. Every time I see it it turns my stomach, because it’s not only the Iraqis who are being brutalized, it’s the fellows in those helicopters as well.

So what are we going to do? I’ve found in talking around the country that Americans have a peculiar hesitancy. It’s understandable. Who likes to be laughed at? We don’t like to start something that doesn’t have a reasonable prospect of success. Who wants to hear,

McGovern, what did you think you were doing standing up there and turning your back when Hillary Clinton was speaking? What was that all about? So you got beat up. What was that all about?

I don’t know why I did it, but I thought it was the right thing to do. We’re not supposed to worry about being successful. We’re supposed to be what? Faithful. The good is worth doing because it’s good. If we’re all worried about whether we’re going to achieve success, we ain’t gonna do nothing. It’s as Camus said:

You can always remain silent.

That’s, of course, what the Germans did in the 1930s.

The other thing, when I got up and beat up by the goons at Hillary Clinton’s speech—this was at George Washington University. For folks who don’t know. All I did was—maybe I’ll just explain in my own defense. I spent some time in the Soviet Union. And it used to be that when a Soviet leader made a speech, there would be stormy applause. And in Pravda the next day every third paragraph would say, “Stormy applause, everyone stands.” Well, Hillary Clinton walks into this big auditorium—I got somebody to get me an invitation—and stormy applause, everyone stands. I’m thinking “Stormy applause, everyone stands.” And then the president of GW University comes in. He made her out to be Mother Teresa. So I’m holding my nose and thinking,

McGovern, what are you going to do?

Luckily, I had my Veterans for Peace shirt on underneath. So there was plenty of time. So I took off my outer shirt, I turned my back, and I just stood there. And all she could see—and she was close—was “” But what the cameras could see was me standing there as she’s talking right behind me. And they could see “Veterans for Peace,” the whole logo. I had done that before in a church. I’m a Catholic, and I don’t like the fact that the women are subordinated and I couldn’t just sit where I used to sit, so I used to stand for the service. I did that for four and a half years in my parish. I finally had to leave. So I did what I did then at Holy Trinity. I looked right at the wall, picked a little place out on the wall. This is going to work, this will be good. The cameras were on me. And I hear Hillary Clinton talking about the necessity to have freedom of expression. It’s really important. In Iran. She doesn’t miss a syllable. She just keeps going on.

Then all of a sudden I see this guy come down with—he looked like a Redskins reject, about 300 pounds. He comes down. And I thought, I don’t know what’s going to happen now. Before I could figure anything out, some another guy grabs me from the back. They lift me up and carry me over three women between me and the aisle, take me out, bang my head against the door frame on the way out, and do other brutal things. Meanwhile, Hillary doesn’t miss a beat, not a syllable. And it’s all recorded. It’s kind of interesting. Some of the footage did get out.

Why do I say this? I say this because I see some people around here that have the same color hair I do. When that happened to me, the first report came out of Fox News, and it was pretty so-so. It said, “An elderly gentleman”—that hurt.

An elderly gentleman was thought to have a sign secreted beneath the seat, or it was felt that he might be willing to shout something out at the Secretary of State. So he was escorted out of the theater.

“Escorted out of the theatre.” Right.

But when the pictures came out of what happened to me, people care about old people getting beat up. That’s why I mentioned this. Young people, Ah, they have it coming. Young people, they can take it. But 71-year-old people—and I’m even older now, if you can believe it—we have an advantage. I say this not jocularly. I say this in real seriousness. We have an advantage. People care if we get beat up. I don’t think they’re going to kill us. But if you’re willing to take a stand on these things, you’re going to get a lot more reaction, a lot more resonance by virtue of your being an old guy like me.

And when one of my Veterans for Peace added that,

Yes, and he’s got cancer

—luckily I had just gone into remission—Hillary Clinton had over 500,000 emails and telephone calls just by virtue of what I did. The cancer brought it up to 800,000. I kid you not.

We can kind of have our principles and we can stand on our principles, but if there’s nothing for which you’re willing to suffer for those principles—and I don’t mean necessarily physically—if you’re not willing to put those principles into play where you could get hurt, where your compassion would mean actually suffering with or suffering because of—like what Ed Snowden did—then your principles, they’re really nice to have, aren’t they, but there’s something lacking there, it seems to me.

The prospect of success? I think we’ve dealt with that. Are there enough of us? Cesar Chávez always used to say, There are enough of us, but without action nothing is going to happen. Op-eds are really nice, speeches are really nice, but if you don’t get out there, nothing’s going to happen. And it’s getting kind of late. I think that probably the next year or two are going to be key. So I think we need to play a role. We have to recognize our responsibility. We have to be prophetic. We have to go back to the vision of the Founders.

I’ve learned a little bit about the prophets at this place where I work, at the ecumenical Church of the Saviour. I just want to see how Biblically literate this crowd is. Isaiah. Who knows that Isaiah walked around at least two years stark naked? Raise your hands. There are a couple people here. It’s right in the Bible. The question is, What was he doing? The smart exegetes, the people who study really hard, say it’s not clear—and they say this without any humor; usually exegetes don’t have a lot of humor—they say it’s not clear that he was always naked, just during liturgical services. That may be good exegesis, but it doesn’t get the man off the hook. So what was he saying? I think what he was saying was,

Look, I’m stripped of my garments here. You say, Oh, isn’t that awful. You are stripped of the vision with which Yahweh blessed you, a vision of justice and shalom, and that is far worse than being physically naked.

I don’t think we’re stripped of that vision, but I think it kind of needs repair and needs some courage. And it needs it quickly. Martin Luther King famously said,

There is such a thing as too late.

I’ll finish just by quoting a German you may not have heard of. He was a contemporary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister who tried to wake up the church there and couldn’t. His name was Albrecht Haushofer. And he was a geologist, at the University of Berlin, and he had tenure. Some of you may not know what tenure means, but it means a lot. It meant a lot in Berlin and it means a lot here now. How did he get tenure? By keeping his mouth shut. He also had a conscience. And as he watched his Jewish friends and other friends being wrapped up, sent away, he gathered a following around himself and spoke out against what was going on. It was really quite significant that they saw this fellow finally speaking out. So he was wrapped up by the Gestapo and put in another prison, separate from Bonhoeffer, and was condemned to be shot. Bonhoeffer was hanged. Those were the two executions.

But the Germans, being very meticulous, insisted that you sign a confession before they would shoot you or hang you. Haushofer wasn’t about to do that. He refused to do it, and as the Allies approached, they shot him and he fell down. As they picked him up, out of his pocket fell a little Zettel, a little piece of paper. On it the title was Schuld, Guilt. It was his confession. And it was written in the form of a sonnet. It’s not very long, but what it said was,

Yes, I’m guilty, but it’s not what you’re thinking. I should have earlier recognized my duty. I should have more sharply called evil evil. I put off my judgment for too long. I did warn, but not enough. And today I recognize what I was guilty of.

So there is such a thing as too late. A lot of you recognize that and are out there doing your thing already. But we need all of us in this battle, and we need to be able to stick our necks out. And the last thing I’ll say is that I do not have anything against necks. I’ve been accused of having a lot against necks. But I think necks are very nice. They’re convenient connections between head and torso. I’d hate to be without a neck. But if there is nothing for which you will risk that neck, then it becomes your idol. And necks are not deserving of idol worship. I don’t have to tell most of you this, but I’ll say it anyway. Be willing to stick your necks out. Be willing to do whatever is necessary to demonstrate that we want to be loyal to our Founders’ vision. If we have to strip ourselves naked, that’s one thing. But we probably won’t have to do that. Whatever we need to do, we do it, without worrying whether it’s going to be successful or not. But let’s just try to do the good because it’s worth doing and leave the rest in the hands of the coming generation. I know that I can be with my nine grandchildren in a much more comfortable way if I know that I’m doing what I can to make their future a little better.

Thanks very much for listening.

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
(800) 444-1977

Posted in Big picture, Department of Offense, Follies of empire, Kafkaesque Amerika, Overseas Contingency Operations and Kinetic Military Action | Leave a comment

Democracy at work

Richard Wolff
Brecht Forum,
New York, NY
9 October 2012

Cascading economic problems and crises, coupled with dysfunctional political responses, have plunged many societies into deepening turmoil. Capitalism, the dominant economic system of our time, has once again become the subject of criticism and opposition. A global capitalist system that no longer meets most people’s needs has prompted social movements to arise and coalesce in the active search for fundamental and structural change. The establishment responds with what are called reforms. But they are superficial and quickly circumvented. Historically, the various forms of state socialism and communism do not offer a model or inspiration to those looking for viable alternatives. People are seeking new solutions to address capitalism’s injustices, waste, and massive breakdowns. One such proposal is workers’ self-directed enterprises. Production works optimally when performed by a community that collectively and democratically designs and carries out shared labor.

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Richard Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and currently a visiting professor at the New School in New York. The New York Times called him “America’s most prominent Marxist economist.” He is the author of numerous books including Capitalism Hits the Fan, Democracy at Work, and Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism with David Barsamian.

You can listen to Richard Wolff speak for himself here.

I’m going to begin by talking a little bit about the failures of the capitalist system we live in now. We can compare this crisis with the last time our capitalist system collapsed. That’s the 1930s. And that has to be brought back, because that’s the only standard, the only equivalent we really have to make sense of what we’re going through now. Like with everybody, you make sense of a crisis now if you can think of a similar crisis that you or your friends or your family went through at some other point. That’s what we do.

An interesting thing happened in the 1930s. Capitalism tanked. It fell apart. It lasted for years—12 years, 1929 to 1941. But there was a big difference. After 4 or 5 years of that crisis, something happened in America then that hasn’t happened yet again. The mass of people reacted and got involved. You had in the U.S. what you now see in Greece or Spain or Italy, and so on. People in the streets. There were demonstrations of tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, in Union Square, just a few blocks from here. Week after week.

There were three kinds of organizations that got involved. There was the union movement. In a short period of time tens of millions of Americans who had never been in a union before joined a union. The organization was called the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which went to the masses of people and said, You’re being really shafted in this crisis. You’ve lost your job, you’ve lost your benefits, you have no money. The union is the only institution that’s going to help you, so you’d better join it and make it strong, because it’s your only chance. Millions of Americans agreed and joined.

The second kind of organization was a group of parties who used the name socialist, socialist parties of various kinds. They basically said capitalism is a system that’s no good. We need an organization to either force it to change or to go beyond it.

And the third organization was the Communist Party, which said more or less the same thing but pushed maybe a bit harder.

There was lots of overlap among the CIO and the socialists and the Communists. They worked together, and they represented tens of millions of people. They said to the president, Roosevelt,

You’d better do something for the mass of people. None of this crap about bailing out the big banks,

which he was doing, and helping the big corporations, which he was doing.

That’s not enough. You’ve got to do something for the people at the bottom, the millions unemployed, the millions losing their homes through foreclosure and so on. And if you don’t,

they wagged their fingers at him,

then we socialists and Communists, we’re going to overthrow this system.

And to make the point, they pointed over there to Russia, where this had happened a little while earlier, and said,

Don’t think it can’t happen here.

Mr. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He heard these people. He knew they represented tens of millions. So what did he do? Very important. He went to the corporations and the rich and he said to them—they didn’t want to hear it, he knew that, but he came from that group, he knew them all personally—

You have to give me a lot of money right now. A lot. And not only do you have to give me a lot of your money, but I’m going to use it to help the mass of people.

Guaranteed to be a tense meeting.

And here was his argument.

You’d better do it, because if you don’t, down the road behind me are coming the socialists and the Communists, and they’re going to offer you a lot worse deal. So here’s what. You give me a lot of money. I’ll take care of them. I’ll help the mass of people the way they’ve never been helped before. But on one condition I’ll help them. Don’t mess with capitalism. Let the industries be the way they are, with the major shareholders having all the power to select the board of directors, which makes all the decisions. Leave that part of capitalism alone.

He split the rich people in the corporations. Half of them bought his argument. They were scared. They saw the same demonstrations in the streets. Half of them never bought the argument. They became the implacable enemies of Mr. Roosevelt, the people who now control the Republican Party, but who were doing that all the way back. But it was enough to get half of them. And Roosevelt went to the socialists, Communists, and CIO and said,

Okay, we’ve got a deal.

And they said

Yes, we’ll downplay the revolution.

Not all of them, but most of them did.

Roosevelt created the Social Security system. He said to Americans,

If you’re over 65 and you’ve spent a lifetime working, I’m going to take care of you for the rest of your life.

In the midst of a depression, when there was no money, like the people say today, the government said,

I’m going to give you all money, a monthly check, you old people, until you drop dead.

No one ever heard of that before. A public pension for everybody. Telling the old people,

You’re not going to have to live on cat food and your children are not going to be burdened by taking care of you. We’re going to take care of you.

No sooner was that done than he announced the development of an unemployment compensation system. That had never been done before either.

You lose your job, we’ll give you a check every week, for a long time. Have a nice day.

No sooner was that done than he said,

And now the icing on the cake. I’m going to create and fill 12 1/2 million jobs and give you all work.

Where did the money for this come from? He taxed the corporations and the rich. And what he didn’t get from them in taxes, he borrowed. And there was no discussion. They didn’t say,

Maybe I’ll lend it to you.

No, no, no, no, no. You’re giving it to us.

And that got us out of the Depression, with neither the revolution of the left, which they feared, or the fascism from the right, which they were also worried about, because that’s what had happened in Italy and in Germany.

But—and here comes the punch line—they never touched the corporation and how it’s organized. They left in place the major shareholders and the board of directors. And guess what happened? The board of directors and the shareholders didn’t like this deal that Roosevelt forced down their throat. They accepted it, but they weren’t happy. And by 1945, which is only a few years later, Roosevelt dead, World War II over, the corporations, shareholders, and boards of directors went to work to undo everything Roosevelt had done.

How did they do it? Number one, they went after the socialists and Communists. They knew who made Roosevelt do what he did, and they destroyed them. Which is why those political parties are as small and as weak today as they are in this country. And they went to work to destroy the labor movement, which is why it is as small and weak today, having had 50 years of decline. They knew that was the basis on which Roosevelt acted, so they had to destroy that basis. They had to destroy the organization of the working class from the left. We live in the results of that. While that was being done, they undid the New Deal. They passed the bills, the laws, they attacked, they took it away. The regulations were deregulated. The government activity was privatized. They took all the steps necessary.

There’s a lesson there, isn’t there? The lesson is, if you don’t change the organization of enterprises, then even when you’re lucky enough to get a better system, a capitalism that you might call capitalism with a human face, one that gives you a pension when you’re old, that gives you unemployment compensation when you lose your job through no fault of your own, one that provides jobs from the public sector if the private sector can’t do it, that kind of a capitalism that you can win if you fight hard, as they did in the 1930s, will then be taken away if you leave those people in power.

Why? Because they’re nasty people? No, no, no. If you’re the head of a corporation, your job is to make money. The regulations passed by Mr. Roosevelt were impediments for a business. They wanted to get around those regulations. They made it harder to make money. They didn’t want to pay those big taxes. That meant money they couldn’t use to build the enterprise. So they saw these things as obstacles, which they worked to overcome. So, of course, they did what the system makes them do: They undid it all.

The best metaphor for this comes out of American history. And it’s the fight against slavery. In the fight against slavery in the U.S. there was an antislavery movement, and it split into two parts. One part of the movement against slavery in the U.S. was horrified that slaves weren’t fed very well, they weren’t clothed very well, their families were split up, they were bought and sold, all those terrible things, and they wanted slaves to be better treated. The other people who were against slavery were horrified by that approach. They said,

Are you crazy? The problem isn’t that the slave doesn’t have the right diet. The problem is that he’s a slave. And if all you do is give him a better diet by forcing the slave owner to feed him better, then you’re leaving the slave owner in the position to reduce the diet next month, next year. You’ve left in place the institution that can undo whatever you achieve. That’s not smart.

That second group finally persuaded Mr. Lincoln. So he didn’t pass a law improving the condition of slaves, he abolished slavery.

If you want to deal with the crises of capitalism— with its injustice, its inequality, its fundamental instability, its waste of people and resources—then you can’t just pass a regulation or apply a tax. You’ve got to deal with the decision-making institutions. Because if you don’t, you cannot win this struggle. Therefore, my proposal is, we’ve got to do that. We’ve got to change the way enterprises are organized. No more shareholders, no more people who control a block of shares and can then pick the board of directors, who make all the decisions, that the rest of the workers, the vast majority, simply have to live with. That’s out. We can’t tolerate that. We’re not going to struggle another 10 years to reimpose the regulations and taxes that our forefathers and foremothers did in the 1930s only to have them undone again. This is absurd.

We have to learn from what they didn’t do and not make that mistake again. That means changing the way enterprises are organized. Don’t shy away from it. Don’t say,

Oh, it’s a big job.

Because the alternative is it won’t work. We’re living that result. We’re worse off now, because not only do we have a crisis of capitalism, but we have no organizations of the left comparable to the CIO, the socialists, and the Communists. So no one is helping us now. We’re just standing there looking at it all and shaking our heads. So capitalism needs now to be confronted. We have to change the way we organize enterprises.

The proposal here is very simple. Enterprises should be run with the decisions made by the workers in them—collectively and democratically. If 100 workers work there, then the 100 workers make those decisions. If 10,000 work there, they make the decisions. I’m going to come back to that, but that’s it. We call those worker self- directed enterprises. No more board of directors and shareholders. The workers become their own collective directors of activity. Every worker has two job descriptions: whatever tasks he or she does in the division of labor in the office, the store, or the factory, plus every worker’s participation, full and equal with every other worker, in the decisions of a director: what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and what to do with the profits.

And before I go into it, which is what I’m going to do for the rest of my time today, I want to tell you that this is not only the solution to the inefficiency and instability of capitalism, the way I’ve stressed; it is also a solution to the problems of classical socialism.

Quickly let me review. The Soviet Union is a prime example. What did they do? They said,

We’re going to get rid of private property in the means of production, and we’re going to have it taken over by the country as a whole. We’re going to socialize the means of production. We take them away from the private owners and run by the state in the interests of everybody.

And the second thing they said is,

We’re not going to allow the market to determine who gets what. That’s going to be done by government planning instead of markets planning. Instead of private property, socialized property.

That was the plan. That’s what the Russian Revolution introduced, that’s what the Chinese Revolution introduced, that’s what the Cuban Revolution introduced, and so on.

What did it do? It did many things. I wish I had the time to go into it—and sometime I will. But here I want to make a central point. It had also profound flaws. First, it didn’t change the organization of the enterprise. The board of directors selected by the shareholders was gone. But in its place the government put in commissars; it sent people that were government officials. The enterprise now had a board of directors, but they weren’t elected by shareholders, they were selected by the government. That didn’t change. The workers still came to work five days a week, produced, and the decisions about what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and what to do with the profits was made by the government officials.

Likewise, when you give such power to the government, the power to own the means of production and the power to distribute goods and services, you’re giving the government a stunning amount of power. And unless you’re awfully careful, they’re going to use that power in ways you’re going to come to regret, which we all know happened. So you’ve got to come up with a way to make sure that this problem doesn’t exist. And it’s all the more powerful because we know that in the end those systems have dissolved, not by external attack, but by the weight of their own contradictions. Russia imploded, China is going through a fundamental shift, Cuba likewise.

So what do you do? I have the same answer. You transform the enterprises. You make them run by the workers themselves. That creates the political power at the base of society that’s a counterweight to the government. The only way the government can survive is then to get taxes from the enterprises owned and operated by the workers in them. Then the government can’t do whatever it wants. It has to come to terms. It’s an institutional way to overcome the concentration of power at the top. And it’s an institutional way to transform the tensions of enterprises, which survive because government officials are just as odious as the people elected by shareholders in many cases. So you’ve overcome that. So this is a proposal that addresses not only the failures of capitalism but the failures of its major 20th century alternative, classical socialism, and maybe is the basis for a whole new idea of what socialism will represent in the 21st century, which is not centralized planning, but rather workers becoming finally the masters of their own lives.

What would that mean? Let me just tantalize you with some of the delicious possibilities. Let me begin with the easier ones. Do you think the workers, if they were sitting around in an office, a store, or a factory, would decide,

Hey, I’ve got an idea. We can make a bit more profit than we’re making now if we just shut down this workplace and reopen in China.

Unlikely. The self-destruction of people doesn’t usually go that far. They’re not going to do it. They’re just not going to do it. What an interesting idea. They’re not going to do it.

Here’s another thought. What if a new technology for whatever the company makes is introduced but it happens to have a side effect, it pollutes the air or it pollutes the water or it introduces a machine that is too loud are or a chemical that is toxic? Now, if you had a board of directors elected by shareholders sitting in New York or L.A., they might say,

Well, it will make more profit. We’ll tell the workers we have a fan. Don’t worry about it.

Yes, but the workers, if they made the decision themselves, since they have to breathe it, and their wives and husbands and children and neighbors, not so quick. If you want to do something about environmental degradation, here’s a way to do it. Just like if you want to do something about jobs leaving the country, there’s a way to do it.

But I’m just getting started. Here’s a bigger one. Do you think if the workers sat around together making the decision of how to divide the profits that they all produce, which is what we’re talking about, that they would give a few officials at the top, managers, tens of millions of dollars in wonderful pay packages—wages, salaries, stock options, bonuses—and everybody else struggles to get by? I don’t think so. If the decisions were made democratically, you know what? They would distribute the profits much more equally. Some would get more and some less, of course, but they wouldn’t be giving some people $25 million a year and everybody else nothing. They wouldn’t do that.

The single most powerful way I can think of to do something about the inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. that almost everybody complains about would be this idea. Because if you made the collective of workers in every enterprise distribute the wealth, they would never distribute it as unequally as is now done by the boards of directors, who give themselves the monstrous salaries. If you want to do something about inequality, do this. Do this. What an amazing thing.

Let’s talk about it some more. How might it work? Here are some questions that are raised that I want to answer.

Gee, it takes a special skill to be a director. You kind of have to know the bigger picture. You can’t go to East Tennessee State Community College. That’s good for working at the bottom. But if you want to be a director, you need to go to Princeton or Harvard or places like that.

Here’s the very old idea: The mass of workers isn’t competent to run a business. This should sound familiar to you. For those of you who remember the history of how we in Western society finally got over 1,000 years of kings and princes and emperors and czars and we got to this idea that everybody should have a vote, there were always those conservatives who said,

Are you crazy? Running a country is something you need to be a king to do. An average schmuck [or whatever the equivalent was] can’t do that. If we don’t have the king, who [as we all know and as they reminded us] talks to God almost as often as Republicans do, then our society will fall. We can’t leave power in the hands of the average person. They’re too stupid, they’re too undereducated.

The eventual answer of the mass of people was to separate those kinds of folks from their own heads, which ended the argument definitively. And we went on to have a voting system, which we call democracy. And guess what? Society didn’t fall apart, civilization didn’t come to an end. All of the dire predictions about the incapacity of the mass of people to participate in their own governance turned out to be, to use a technical term from political science, bullshit.

I’ve got a thought for you. The incompetence of workers to manage their own workplace is the same argument, it’s the same silly idea. You think the people who run America’s enterprises were born with the capacity to govern the enterprise? Stop. We have colleges for them. We have specialized programs/degrees for them called master of business administration. That’s where you learn to do these things. You have to learn it because nobody knows it. It’s something you learn. It doesn’t take very long. And most graduates tell you, We didn’t learn all that much, but it was good to go because I made good connections. Oh, I see, that’s what it’s about— connections. The learning part is very little.

Here’s a thought. You could organize enterprises so that not only did everybody participate in directing but that there were ongoing courses available to everybody, all the time during your work life where, if you felt deficient in any area, there would be people who would, in whatever way you like, teach you this, precisely so that everybody could participate. Your job and your education would be woven together. Going to work would also be going to school. What an interesting idea. You might go to a job to learn something; it might be exciting. The bar that you pass on the way home from your job would no longer advertise happy hour, because you knew what the hours were before you got there, because you would begin to be, I don’t know, happy at work. Can you imagine? Because you would be learning, you would be participating, you would be exploring your own capabilities.

Here’s another thought. The work is divided, but the people don’t have to be. We can rotate everybody. You can be for a while this job and then a while that job. You know why? Because it stultifies your brain to always do the same thing. You want variation. Not just from this technical work to that but from running the place to letting someone else run the place, maybe while you’re taking a course to become another kind of worker because you would like to try that, you would like to develop your skills. What an interesting idea.

Now let me address another dimension of this. And you see what I’m doing. I’m making the best case I can for this. And I have to, because it’s either ignored or dismissed when there’s no justification for either. Here’s another argument that is made.

These things might work, but it’s only on small enterprises. Five people could do it, maybe ten, but anything bigger than that, no. And if you look around, most co-ops that you see where people try to do it, they’re kind of small, you know.

I love this argument.

The answer to this argument is just the history of capitalism. Capitalism grew out of another system in Europe called feudalism. Most of Europe for, say, the period from 500 to 1000 A.D., was feudal. Big or not so big plantations—feudal manors they were called—big areas of land, lots of serfs. When capitalism grew, when capitalism emerged, depending on how you count, 16th, 17th, 18th century, guess how it started everywhere? Small. A capitalist with three workers or six workers or nine workers. And feudal lords all congratulated themselves. Yes, it’s scary, but it’s little. It only applies to little. Guess what? It starts little, but it gets big. It manages, it makes adjustments, but it manages.

Is that possible for co-ops? Sure it is. Why in the world would you assume otherwise? And in case you did, let me give you the example. It’s called the Mondragon Corporation in Spain. It’s a worker self-directed enterprise. And how many people work for the Mondragon Corporation? One hundred twenty thousand, thank you very much. Over 50 years. They started as six people in the north of Spain, a priest and six people. Not an auspicious beginning—a priest, six people. Not good. But here we are. They are now the largest corporation in the north of Spain and the seventh largest corporation in all of Spain. Did they manage the transition from small to big? Yes.

Here’s another topic.

Well, these things are very nice and people would love each other and it would be charming, but it could never compete with capitalist enterprises. They can’t. How are they going to compete with a tough capitalist enterprise?

And the answer is easy. Let me explain. I’m sure nobody in this room would qualify for what I’m about to say, but some of you know a little bit that if you work in a capitalist enterprise, it has been known to happen that at the end of the day when you go home, you take a stapler with you, don’t you? Some of you are smiling. You’ve heard of it. I’m sure you never did it. Or are a ream of paper or a pen or a chair, or a computer component, right? And you do that for all kinds of complicated reasons. But you rob the employer blind. Every employer knows it. In case you’re not aware, the biggest source of theft, most corporations of America believe, is their own employees, who are of course in the best position to do that. And they do.

Suppose you as an employee of a capitalist enterprise notice on your way out of the office that the lights are all on and you remember the employer giving you a memo or six telling you,

If you see the lights on before you go home, turn them off.

To which your response is,

Screw you. Why the hell should I turn off the lights? It’s not my problem, it’s your problem. The mice need to see where they’re going. And I like mice, and I don’t care that you don’t like mice. And I could spend a lot of time at night trying to figure out a better way to make something, but why should I do that? It would just help you and your profits. I’d rather watch the presidential debate.

So what would happen in a collective enterprise run by the workers? It’s their own enterprise. Of course they’re going to turn off the light. And what the hell would they steal for? They’d be stealing from themselves. And when they can figure out a better way to do something and it makes the business more profitable, it’s their business. We say that in America. We say it’s not good to rent a house, it’s better to own the house, because if you own the house, you care more about it. Oh. If that’s true, then it would make sense in the enterprise, too, wouldn’t it? How come it doesn’t apply there? Because it scares the people who own the enterprise. They don’t want you to think like that. It’s fine to think that about your house, just not where you work. It doesn’t work, friends. That’s illogical.

Here’s another difference. When a capitalist enterprise prices what they produce, a good or a service, they have to cover the costs of the materials that go into it, of course, and they have to cover the labor, the wages they pay their workers. But they have to cover something else: the profits they give to the shareholders. The price has to be high enough to generate the profits. But a worker-owned and -operated enterprise doesn’t have shareholders, doesn’t have to raise the price to cover the distribution of profits to the shareholders. So their price can be lower, which will enable them to outcompete the capitalist. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Look at that. It turns out that they can compete quite well.

And again, here’s the clue. Mondragon Corporation has an iron rule, which they explained to me when I visited there in May 2012. Every co-op enterprise within the large Mondragon corporation has to compete in the larger capitalist economy. No unit of the Mondragon Corporation will buy from another unit if they can get a better or a cheaper equivalent from a private capitalist enterprise. So everyone inside that corporation had to be competitive. And they were. That’s how they got to go from 6 to 120,000. They were successful capitalist competitors.

In San Francisco there’s a group of six bakeries called the Arizmendi Bakery. They’re all worker co-op, self-directed enterprises. Arizmendi, by the way, is the name they chose because it’s the name of the priest in northern Spain who started Mondragon, and it was in honor of him that they took that name. They’re very competitive. If you go to them, you get an espresso and a Danish or a croissant whatever it is you want, and you can do it at a competitive price. And they’ve been growing. They’ve made enough money with the bakeries—they started with one—and now they have six. So competition, not a problem.

The last couple of points. How do people feel who work in such a place? Not a minor matter. Here I’m going to give you some evidence from an American example that most people don’t know about and that even the people involved in don’t think about in the way I’m talking. The example comes from the Silicon Valley of California. Every year engineers, typically highly trained, well paid, working for big telecommunications and computer companies, quit their jobs. And together with 10 or 20 others they take their laptops and they gather in somebody’s garage, who has an extra garage, and they say,

We’re going to set up a new enterprise.

When you talk to them, here’s kind of the story you get.

We hate working for IBM or Cisco Systems or whatever, Oracle. We have to wear a tie and jacket. Ugh. We have to come at a certain time. We have some jerk sales manager telling us what we should invent in the way of software. We can’t bring our dog, we can’t bring our toddler, we can’t bring our Frisbee, and we’re not supposed to come high.

And if you know what an engineer in California is like, these are serious limits on what he or she would like to do.

But worst of all, we don’t like what we’re told to do. We have no freedom. We don’t do very good work. We hate this. All we get is a lot of money. But you know something, we don’t need that much.

They quit, and they set up a little enterprise.

It’s very interesting what they do. They set up an enterprise in which they say everyone here is equal—no boss, no supervisor, nobody tells anybody else what to do.

We get together on Fridays and we decide what we’re going to do and how we’re going to divide the labor. And we decide what to do with the profits from the software that we create. We can come to work the way we want. Loud Hawaiian shirt and louder Bermuda shorts. We are flying because we drank or ate or smoked something before we came to work, and we brought some with us. We have two toddlers. We’re not sure who they are, but we brought them. And we have six dogs. And we play Frisbee with the dogs and with the toddlers all day long and have a wonderful time.

Seriously, here’s what they say.

We are more creative than we have ever been. We’re free. We work out what we want to do together with engineers like ourselves who know what the issues are, what the problems are, what a reasonable solution might look like, what way to go. And we can work together. We make less money, but we love our work. We wouldn’t trade it for a million bucks. Wow. We’re more creative and we love our work.

Why are you more creative?

Well, we can invent, we can explore, we can do what we wanted to do when we went into this kind of work.

And then they point out something very powerful. I remember it blew me away when I first heard it.

We have made break-throughs in this little enterprise of 20 or 30 laptop users. We’ve made real break-throughs. And we’re angry, because the big businesses, the Oracles, the Cisco Systems, and all of them, claim they’re at the forefront of technological break-through. Crap. It’s not true. We’re the place where the break-throughs happen. In order to make a break-through, you need a different way of organizing.

Aha, listen to what they’re saying. These people have walked away from a capitalistically organized enterprise. And you know what they’ve created? A worker self-directed enterprise.

When you talk to them and you tell them,

You know, you have abandoned capitalism,

they get a sad, kind of hang-dog look, because it turns out that most of them are Republicans. They are. And they refer to what they have done as being—ready?—entrepreneurial innovators. And I always say when I talk to them,

I don’t care if you think what you did was invent a chartreuse banana. You can call it anything you want. You have done what was the dream

—and this gets them really upset—

of Karl Marx. And on behalf of Marx, who’s not around to tell you, I want to say to you thank you. Very good of you to do this, because it allows people like me to use you as an example,

just as I’m doing now.

So here we have this newborn kind of enterprise in our midst here in the U.S., proving that if you give American workers half a chance, choose you, American worker.

You want to go to work in a top-down, hierarchical capitalist enterprise? Be my guest. But if you would rather try to work in an environment of equals who make the decisions, where you can be a director as well as a drone, well, you could try this.

Of course, you could only try them if the U.S. gave you the freedom of choice, which it doesn’t. We believe in freedom of choice in the supermarket, where there should be 27 varieties of toothpaste that you can choose among.

But two different ways of organizing your work life? No, thank you. We don’t need it. Capitalism, as we all know, is the greatest system since sliced bread, and therefore no improvement or no alternative is needed.

That was a joke, friends. Sarcasm, okay?

So it turns out that if you give workers a chance, they will make these choices. They will surprise you. And when you think about it, it’s not so hard to understand why. Could it be done in the U.S.? Of course it could. Is this a feasible arrangement? No problem at all. So for those of you who think I’ve painted a lovely picture but it can’t be realized, I gotcha.

Here’s how we do it. We take some precedents from other places that have done it. First, let’s facilitate all the ways that working people who have a little money saved up could pool it to start the money they need to go into business as a collective, as a cooperative. Here’s another thought. Let’s borrow from an Italian law. It’s named after an Italian legislator, Marcora. It’s called the Marcora Law. Here’s how it works in Italy right now. It’s been on the books there since 1985. It works like a charm in Italy. They wouldn’t let it go. Here’s the deal. If you become unemployed in Italy, you have a choice. You can get a weekly unemployment check, just like we do in America. That’s choice one. But there’s choice two. Here in America there is no choice two. That’s because we believe in freedom of choice. Italy has a choice two. Here’s the choice. The Italian government will give you your entire two to three years of unemployment benefits, weekly check, in a lump sum right now at the beginning. You agree that you will make no more claims on the Italian government for unemployment; you’ve got your whole sum of money. And they will give it to you on one condition—that you find at least nine other unemployed people just like you who will agree, just like you, to take a lump sum, and then you agree to use the lump sum as capital with which to start a worker self-directed collective enterprise.

The argument for the law is, if workers start their own enterprise, they will work five times harder to make that successful than they would if they went to work as an employee for someone else. An interesting assumption, if you think about it. That’s the law in Italy. That’s how a lot of worker directed co-ops that exist in Italy today got started.

We could do that. We could do that. One more time. We could do that.

Here’s another thing we could do. We could take a page from the existing law in the U.S. We have in this country, as you know, the Small Business Administration. The idea is that big businesses have advantages over little ones in America and the little ones need to level the playing field. So there’s a special branch of the government to give the small businesses cheap loans, technical advice, to give them some help. We’ve been doing that for many decades in America.

Here’s another one: the Minority Business Administration, to help minority businesses get off the ground.

I’ve got a thought. A worker self-directed business administration, whose job it would be to give Americans a chance for a choice by creating and funding and giving technical help to workers’ cooperatives around the country, Americans could see what they look like, how they work, what it’s like to work there.

I have another thought. We could require labels on all our products. And the label would now say not just “Made in China” versus “Made in Brooklyn.” It would say “Made by a capitalist enterprise” or “Made by a worker collective enterprise.” And we as buyers could choose which kind of enterprise we wish to support. What a lovely opportunity to exercise our freedom of choice, which we don’t have, but which we talk a lot about. Which is a human characteristic. The more you miss it, the more you substitute bullshit about it, because you feel so sad that you don’t have it. We could do all those things. So is it possible to do? Yes. That would be the way to do it.

Finally—and I want to make sure that this point is as clear as I know how to make it—to bring worker self-directed enterprise organization to American enterprise is also a historic act that a generation like ours, yours, could and should and would be proud of, because what you’re doing is you’re completing the otherwise terribly incomplete democratic revolution of the last 300 years. Something terrible happened to democracy as we moved in that direction as a reaction to the absolute monarchies of Europe that we came out of. We said there would be democracy in the places where we lived, in our cities and towns, in our countries. We would have voting, we would give people power.

But we never brought it into our economic system. We allowed enterprises to develop in which a tiny group of people, the major shareholders and the board of directors, make decisions like kings. The rest of us all have to live. If they decide to close the factory, our jobs are gone. If they decide to use a toxic technology, our health is gone. If they decide to distribute most of the profits to a few people, our equilibrium with other people in the society is gone. We have to live with those decisions, and we participate in them not even a little.

Capitalism as a way of organizing an enterprise is fundamentally antidemocratic, and it’s always been like that. So if you have a commitment to democracy that’s more than verbal, you have a problem with capitalism, and you need to think about worker self-directed enterprise as the antidote, as the way finally to bring democracy to the workplace.

And isn’t it strange that it hasn’t always been there? Where do we all as adults spend most of our lives? Five out of seven days we go to work. For most of the hours of that day, we’re either getting ready for work or we’re at work or we’re recuperating from work. But work defines us. And if you have a commitment to democracy, that would have been the first place it ought to have been institutionalized. Not left out. To leave the workplace out of democracy is to undo your democracy. And you all know it. We all live in a country now that is stunning. The vast majority of people are polled by Gallup, by the CBS folks. We know what the majority of Americans think, and we know that our political leaders simply ignore it. The majority don’t want to be in Afghanistan. We’re there. The majority long ago stopped supporting the Iraq war. We’re there. The majority think the distribution of wealth and income in America is inappropriate. Who cares?

We know why. We know that if you have a political system that tries to be democratic superimposed on an economic system that isn’t, the economic system wins that struggle. It buys the political system. It makes sure that the political system cannot function democratically. Because if it did, then we would use our democratic power in politics to undo the effects of economics. If the economy made a few people superrich and the rest of us not, we would use our majority power in politics to undo that.

In a sense that’s what happened in the 1930s. The rich long ago figured that out. They use their money, their capitalist positions, to control the politics. To democratize the economy, you have to democratize the enterprise. And if you don’t do that, then your commitment to democracy is as shallow and as formal as our actual democracy is. The form is there, the content isn’t.

If you have found even some of these arguments in favor of an alternative way to organize enterprise, as a serious way to address many of the economic and social problems of our society that are now impacting every life in this room, then do me a favor, think about this. And talk to people about it, which is the best way to spread this. But for those of you that have wondered: There’s no alternative to this system that is so painful, that is so inadequate, there is. And if people begin to understand that and push for it, there’s no end to what we can do.

One personal note. As I hope you can see from the way I present these ideas, I am having the time of my life. And there’s a simple reason. My message isn’t different than it was 5 and 10 years ago. So that’s not the reason. The reason is that audiences across this country keep expanding with their numbers, their enthusiasm, and their openness. Something is shifting in the United States on a scale I have never seen in my lifetime and I was born here. Way better than anything that happened in the 1960s. So don’t feel down, this is an opportunity the likes of which do not come but once in a long while. This is a country that is changing.

Thank you.

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
T: (800) 444-1977 ©2008

Posted in All dumbed down, Big picture, Corporate bonding and domination, Economic injustice, John Birch ilk, Kafkaesque Amerika, Liberal ineffectiveness, The American Dream | Leave a comment

Magna Carta: Then and now

Noam Chomsky
Denver, Colorado
7 May 2013

The Magna Carta is the foundational document of the legal system. It crucially asserted that law is sovereign, not the king. Today, the term rule of law is invoked by whoever is in the White House. But you have to wonder what do they mean? There is one set of rules for official enemies and another for Washington and its minions. Take the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT. Iran is a signatory and is being subjected to collective punishment, i.e., a stringent sanctions regime as well as the threat of military attack. Both are illegal. But hey why bother with technicalities. Meanwhile, U.S. allies such as Israel, India and Pakistan are not signatories to the NPT, have nuclear weapons and Washington says nothing. Principles to have any validity must be applied uniformly. What does it mean when a president is above the law?

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Noam Chomsky, legendary MIT professor, practically invented modern linguistics. In addition to his pioneering work in that field he has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for many decades. Edward Said said of him, “Noam Chomsky is one of the most significant challengers of unjust power and delusions; he goes against every assumption about American altruism and humanitarianism.” The New Statesman describes him as “the conscience of the American people.” He is the author of scores of books, including Hopes & Prospects, Occupy, How The World Works, and Power Systems with David Barsamian.

You can listen to Noam Chomsky speak for himself here.

Two years from now we’ll be reaching the 800th anniversary of a document of quite remarkable significance, the Magna Carta, extracted from King John by the barons in 1215. Unfortunately, we’re probably not going to be celebrating its achievements; we will more likely be mourning its demise. The Magna Carta has two parts. One part is or should be well known. It’s the Charter of Liberties, widely and justly recognized as the foundations of our highest principles of freedom and justice. The other part has long been forgotten, and it may be of even greater importance. I’ll come back to it later.

The Charter of Liberties provides the origins of the concept of presumption of innocence, of due process. Its most famous part is Article 39.

No free man shall be punished in any way, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him except by lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.

That’s 1215. It has a long history that enters in slightly different form into the U.S. Constitution, which says that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law and a speedy and public trial by peers”—the core of our concept of justice. It has restrictions.

The term person in the Constitution, of course, doesn’t mean persons. It does not include slaves, of course does not include Native Americans, it did not include women. Under the prevailing British common law of the day, women were not persons, they were property. A woman was the property of her father, handed over to her husband. In fact, it’s worth recalling that it was not until the 1970s that the Supreme Court granted women the right of actual persons, peers entitled to serve federal juries. Post-Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution repeats that guarantee but extends it beyond the limited concept of persons in the Constitution. Personhood was granted to freed slaves. In later years, and up till the present, the term person has been both extended and narrowed by the courts. It has been extended to include collectivist legal fictions that are established and maintained by state power and taxpayer subsidy, called corporations; and it’s been narrowed to explicitly exclude undocumented aliens. That goes right up to very recent court cases. So “person” still doesn’t mean person, unfortunately.

There has been progress over eight centuries—habeas corpus, other extensions, additions—but there has also been regression, particularly in very recent years. Regression is quite sharp under the Bush and Obama administrations. Under Bush, the state claimed and was granted the right to capture and torture suspects. Obama changed that. Now he claims and is granted the right to murder them. That’s a crucial change from Bush to Obama. The means for carrying this out are the secret executive army, JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, which is under much less supervision than the CIA and more lethal, but particularly the terror weapons that are now being used quite extensively in what is by far the leading, most prominent and widespread terrorist campaign in the world, the drone campaigns of assassination.

We should bear in mind that drones are not just guns that kill somebody; they’re weapons designed to terrorize. That’s kind of obvious. If you’re in Denver, let’s say, and never know when you’re walking down the streets whether suddenly a person standing in front of you will be blasted away by some device you can’t see up in the sky, along with whoever may be standing next to him and other people who happen to be in the way, that’s a weapon of terror. It’s designed and used to terrorize communities, regions, and in fact by now quite large regions. By now there are large regions of the world where anybody, at any moment can expect a sudden blow from the Grim Reaper in Washington, who, incidentally, is acclaimed here in his terrorist activities for administering justice to those who are suspected of maybe someday thinking about harming us, so therefore they have to be blown away. Or who happen to be standing by, as often happens. Or who are misidentified by poor intelligence. Or who happen to have made a bad choice of a father, should have chosen a responsible father.

That was explained by Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, when he was asked why the Grim Reapers had murdered 16-year-old Abdul Rahman Awlaki at a barbecue with his cousins. They went too. Why were they killed? When Abdul Rahman’s irresponsible father had been killed, murdered, in fact, two weeks earlier, along with the man sitting next to him, of course that was reported. The New York Times had a headline saying, “The West Celebrates a Cleric’s Death.” Actually, not death, but the murder of a cleric. There were a few eyebrows raised in that case, unlike others, because Awlaki and the man next to him and his 16-year-old son were American citizens, and they are supposed to fall under the category of persons, unlike non-citizens, who are what George Orwell called “unpersons” and therefore all fair game for assassination under our current moral code.

We know how this is carried out. For example, there was a long story in The New York Times by two military correspondents, probably a White House leak. It seems the White House is proud of it. What happens—I’m sure you’ve read that story—is that President Obama sits down every Tuesday morning with his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, now head of the CIA, a former priest, so the two of them can read a chapter of St. Augustine together about just war, and then they run through the list, the “disposition matrix,” as it’s now called, and decide who we’re going to blow away today.

This is all celebrated. The reactions from the government are instructive. The Attorney General, Eric Holder, was asked whether he didn’t think that had violated due process in the case of American citizens. He said, No, they have due process, because we discuss it in the executive branch. King John in 1215 would have been delighted with that answer—one sign of how we’re progressing. Presumably they didn’t read another chapter of St. Augustine’s work, one that should be famous. St. Augustine relates a parable of how in the reign of Alexander the Great a pirate is captured. The pirate is brought to the emperor and Alexander angrily asks the pirate, “How dare you molest the seas?” And pirate responds, “How dare you molest the whole world? I have a small ship, so I am a pirate. You have a great navy, so you are an emperor.” Augustine says he found the pirate’s answer elegant and excellent. I doubt if that was read.

The elite reactions tell us a lot about what’s happening to this country, to us. Take Joe Klein, a liberal columnist. He was asked on MSNBC, which is supposedly the liberal channel, what his reaction was to the drone killings of four little girls in Yemen. He also gave an answer that was excellent and elegant. He said,

The bottom line in the end is whose 4-year-old gets killed. And what we’re doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here are going to get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.

So it’s a good idea to kill 4-year-old kids somewhere in Yemen because maybe those who see that will realize that they’d better not think of harming us. Although chances are quite high that what they will actually think of is revenge and try to find a way, if they can, to harm us as much as they’re able to.

This, incidentally, is well understood by high officials, by experts on the topic, for example, Gregory Johnson. He’s a Princeton University specialist on Yemen. I’ll read his words.

The most enduring policy legacy of the past four years may well turn out to be an approach to counterterrorism that American officials call “the Yemen model.” It’s a mixture of drone strikes and special forces raids targeting people thought to be al-Qaeda leaders. Testimonies from al-Qaeda fighters and interviews that I and local journalists have conducted across Yemen attest to the centrality of civilian casualties in explaining al-Qaeda’s rapid growth here.

The United States is killing women, children, and members of key tribes. Each time they kill a tribesman, they create more fighters for al-Qaeda,

a Yemeni explained to him over tea. Another, he says, told CNN after a strike,

I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesman joined al-Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake.

That’s an interesting illustration of the willful blindness about this.

In yesterday’s New York Times there is a lead story on the threat of what’s called “solo terrorism,” individuals who might decide to carry out acts of terror, like the Marathon bombings. They might emanate from Yemen. There are a lot of citations and learned commentary on what might be the various psychological disorders of the perpetrators of these acts. But there’s not a single word on why the Yemenis or Pakistanis or Somalis might want to harm the United States, though the answer is hardly obscure.

Also interesting is the attitude towards terror of the leading intellectual lights of the liberal establishment, for example, the highly regarded liberal commentator of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman, also a Middle East specialist. He was interviewed in May 2003 by Charlie Rose. That’s the highbrow discussion program on PBS. We’re supposed to be impressed. He was asked by Rose what his recommendations were for the U.S. occupying Army in Iraq—this is the early months of the occupation—and he gave an answer that was also simple and elegant. I have to read it; I can’t paraphrase. Friedman says,

We needed to go over there basically, take out a very big stick right in the heart of that world. What Muslims needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society? You think this bubble of terrorism fantasy, we’re just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this.”

In short, a severe dose of humiliation administered by American boys and girls will teach the terrified women and children whose houses they break into that they’d better stop terrorizing us. I’m keeping to the liberal extreme. You go to right, it gets a lot worse.

The same is true of policy. Take, for example, the Marathon bombings a couple weeks ago. Plenty of people in Boston were touched, even personally, by that tragic event. So, for example, in my case, a young police officer was murdered right outside my office, friends were at the finish line where bombs went off, others were under the militarization of neighborhoods where the second suspect was finally caught. That’s rare. It’s rare for privileged people like us to get a little sense of what others live with constantly. That’s not usual. So, for example, Yemen again. Two days after the Marathon bombing there was a drone strike in Yemen on a remote village. It killed the target. We know about it because there happened to be— usually we don’t know, but in this case there happened to be testimony in the Senate a couple of days later by a young Yemeni man who comes from the village.

His testimony is interesting. He said that for years the jihadis in Yemen have been trying to turn the village against the Americans to make them hate America, but they failed, because the only thing the villagers know about America is what I tell them from here. I’m a village boy who is lucky enough to be here, and I tell them good things about America. But, he said, the one drone strike accomplished what the jihadis had failed to do for years. So we generate some more “solo terrorists.” He also pointed out that the suspect in this case was well known in the village, could easily have been apprehended. But it’s kind of easier just to blow him away, whatever the consequences.

There are other cases like that, even more serious ones, like the murder of Osama bin Laden. And the term “murder” is correct. Bin Laden was a suspect. Eight centuries ago there used to be an understanding that there’s a concept of presumption of innocence. Suspects are supposed to be brought to a fair and speedy trial. In this case it wouldn’t have been very difficult. He was apprehended, defenseless, alone with his wife, by 79 highly trained members of the Joint Special Forces Command, Navy SEALS. They blew him away on orders and dumped his body into the ocean without autopsy. That’s also easily taken care of. In fact, there was some protest about it, some question, very little, but a little, and there was a response to it by another respected left liberal commentator, Matthew Yglesias. He patiently explained that

one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers.

That means by us. So, he says, it’s “amazingly naïve” to suggest that the United States should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless. Incidentally, he’s referring specifically to me, and I happily accept the guilt.

But let’s look a little bit beyond. How did they locate bin Laden? The technique that was used, this time by the CIA, was to start a fake vaccination campaign in a town where they thought he might be located. The campaign started in a poor area, but along the way they realized that bin Laden was probably somewhere else, so they cut off the campaign. This alone violates principles of medical ethics or elementary ethics that go back to classical times, to the Hippocratic Oath. But anything is okay if you’re the Godfather. So no comment on that.

It gets worse. Throughout a lot of the poor countries is that there is fear, and quite justified fear, of what these white guys are doing. Justified. They’ve got a history. We may not like to think about it. What are they doing when they come in, these rich white guys, and start poking our arms? What are they up to? There’s plenty of fear. Okay, Obama gave them a lesson in what they’re up to. They’re involved in a campaign to murder somebody they don’t like. That had an effect, a big effect, in Pakistan, but also beyond, as far as Nigeria. It aroused fear of the polio vaccination program that’s underway. Polio is practically eradicated. It could go the way of smallpox in no time if it weren’t for our fun and games. Pakistan is one of the last places where it’s endemic. Polio workers soon began to be abducted and killed, and the UN had to withdraw its whole polio vaccination team. A specialist on this matter at Columbia University, Les Roberts, estimated that this will probably cause 100,000 cases of polio in Pakistan. He pointed out that one of these days people in Pakistan are going to point to that kid sitting in a wheelchair and say, “You did this to him,” and there’s going to be a reaction, as you would expect. The same happened in Nigeria, maybe elsewhere.

There’s more. When Obama sent the Joint Special Forces Command into Pakistan—which is, of course, aggression, a violation of international law, but we’re above that—they were under orders, to fight their way out if they were apprehended. And if they had had to fight their way out, the U.S. forces would not have let them be. They would have used the full force of American military power to extricate them. And it came very close. The Pakistani chief of staff, Kayani, was informed of the invasion, and he ordered his staff, in his words, to “confront any unidentified aircraft.” He assumed there it was probably an attack from India, the main enemy. At the same time, in Kabul, not far away, the commanding general, David Petraeus, ordered U.S. warplanes to respond if Pakistanis scrambled their fighter jets. We were on the verge of war with a well trained, disciplined army dedicated to the defense of the sovereignty of Pakistan and with plenty of nuclear weapons and, incidentally, laced with radical Islamists. So Obama was saying, Okay, we’ll take a chance on a nuclear war, which will destroy most of the world, because we have to carry out this assassination. That’s worth thinking about.

It brings up another basic human right, which wasn’t discussed in the Magna Carta, the right to security, even the right to survival. If you look at scholarship and you go to school and you believe what you hear, then the security of citizens is supposed to be the prime commitment of state authorities. In fact, that’s the foundation of international relations theory. But it’s very far from true. Actually, the Yemen assassinations are an example. The U.S. is creating future terrorists more quickly than it’s killing people who might possibly be a danger someday.

It’s worth remembering that these are self-generating processes. When you build up institutions like JSOC, the drone system, they keep expanding. In fact, they are generating targets which require them to expand. So we can expect it to go on, and we can also expect it to come back home. That’s traditional. You work out ways of terrorizing and controlling people abroad, and not long after, similar methods are used at home. There are already dangerous beginnings of that. And I’ll put that off.

However, there is a much more serious threat than terror. Instant destruction by nuclear weapons. Actually, the bin Laden assassination is an example. But it’s worth remembering that this has never been a high priority for state officials. The idea of protecting the U.S. from what would, in fact, be total destruction from nuclear weapons has just not been a high priority. There’s plenty of evidence for that. We can ignore it if we like, but it’s there.

So, for example, you go back to 1950. The U.S. had tremendous security, overwhelming power, but there was a potential threat. The potential threat didn’t exist then, but it was potential. It was the threat of ICBMs with hydrogen-bomb warheads. There would have been a way to deal with that threat. In fact, the Russians, who were the potential enemy, knew that they were way behind the U.S. in military technology, and they proposed to sign a treaty with the U.S. to ban the development of these systems. If that had been done, it would have eliminated the one and only serious, indeed massive, threat to the security of people of the U.S. There’s a detailed history of nuclear strategy by McGeorge Bundy, who was Kennedy’s and Johnson’s national security adviser. He had access to internal documents. It’s interesting to read it. He mentions, more or less in passing, that he was unable to find a single internal paper in the government that even considered this possibility when they were offered the treaty by Russia. It just doesn’t matter.

It goes on. Two years later, in 1952, Stalin made a remarkable offer. It was known, it wasn’t secret. The offer was to permit Germany to be unified and have free, internationally supervised elections, which, of course, the West would win, but on the condition that it be militarily neutralized. For the Russians that’s not a small thing. Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia several times during the past half century and, as part of a Western military alliance, it’s very frightening. That was the offer. It was kind of ridiculed. There was one well- known policy analyst, James Warburg, quite influential, who did write about it, but that was dismissed, basically with ridicule. Now, years later, with the Russian archives opened, it’s being taken seriously by conservative scholarship, that says it could have been that there was something to it. If the U.S. had followed up with it, it would have greatly reduced the threat of war. It would have also ended the official reason for NATO. That was all pretty serious. But it was ignored.

A couple of years later, Nikita Khrushchev came in. He recognized as did the Russian military that they were way behind the U.S. in military power, and Khrushchev made an offer to the U.S. to sharply reduce offensive weapons mutually so as to cut back the threat of war in Europe. The Kennedy administration was aware of the offer, they considered it, and they rejected it. They rejected it even when Khrushchev went ahead unilaterally to cut back offensive weapons. In fact, the Kennedy administration reaction was to sharply increase military spending and military force. That had consequences, too. That was one of the reasons why in 1962 Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba to try to right the enormous military imbalance somehow. That led to what Arthur Schlesinger, historian, Kennedy adviser, called “the most dangerous moment in world history,” the Cuban missile crisis.

There was another reason for it. The Kennedy administration, after the Bay of Pigs, had launched a major terrorist war against Cuba, economic warfare but also a straight terrorist war. Schlesinger again, in his biography of Robert Kennedy, says that the goal of the war was to “bring the terrors of the earth to Cuba.” Robert Kennedy was in charge, it was his prime responsibility. It was pretty serious. We don’t read about it, but it matters to people at the other end of the guns. That operation, Operation Mongoose, was set up to lead to a U.S. invasion in October 1962. Cubans doubtless knew, the Russians knew. That was another reason for putting the missiles into Cuba. Then we get to “the most dangerous moment in world history.”

It’s worth paying attention to what actually happened. It tells you a lot about how our government, and states generally, consider, how they rank the threat of survival for their own citizens. A lot is known about this. We have a horde of internal documents that have been declassified. They’re very clear. There’s no ambiguity about what they say. On October 26th the U.S. B52 fleet was armed with nuclear weapons and ready to attack Moscow. Furthermore, the option of bombing was actually down to individual pilots. Some pilot might have decided, Okay, let’s blow up the world. Kennedy himself was leaning towards military action to remove the missiles from Cuba. His own subjective estimate of the probability of nuclear war was between a third and a half.

That evening, October 26th, Kennedy received a private letter from Khrushchev with an offer to end the crisis. How? The Russians would withdraw the missiles from Cuba and the U.S. would withdraw the missiles from Turkey. Now, Kennedy didn’t actually know that there were missiles in Turkey. In fact, when they were talking in the internal meetings and was he talking about how dangerous the missiles were in Cuba, he said, Look, if we had put missiles in Turkey, it would really be very dangerous. And McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, leaned over him and told him quietly, We have missiles in Turkey. But, in fact, those missiles were being withdrawn. The reason? They were being replaced with much more lethal, invulnerable Polaris submarines. So Khrushchev’s offer actually was to withdraw the missiles from Cuba if the U.S. would withdraw obsolete missiles from Turkey for which a withdrawal order had already been given. Kennedy rejected it, with the estimate of a threat of a third to a half of nuclear war.

In my view, that’s maybe the most horrendous decision in human history. We take a huge risk of destroying the world in order to establish the principle that we have a right to have missiles on anybody’s border threatening them, anywhere in the world, and no one else has a right to threaten us. This is a unilateral right. They can’t do it even to deter a planned invasion. That’s not the worst of it. The worst is that in our kind of intellectual system, Kennedy is praised for his cool courage at this moment. In my view, that’s shocking.

It continues. Ten years later, 1973, there was a Middle East war, Israel, Egypt, and Syria. In the middle of that war, Henry Kissinger, who was then in charge, ordered a high-level nuclear alert. The goal of the alert, we know from declassified documents, was to warn the Russians not to interfere when Israel violated the ceasefire that the Russians and the Americans had agreed on. Kissinger had informed Israel they could violate the ceasefire, if they want, and keep going. There was some concern the Russians might react, and the nuclear alert was set up to warn them away. Fortunately, it worked.
Ten years later, Ronald Reagan comes in. As soon as his administration opened, they began to probe Russian defenses with simulating air and naval attacks into Russia. The Russians weren’t sure what’s going on. They also installed Pershing missiles in Germany that had a 5- minute flight time to Russian targets, that provided what the CIA called “super sudden first strike capability.” Naturally, this caused plenty of alarm in Russia. Unlike us, they’re quite vulnerable and had been invaded, almost destroyed numerous times. And it led to a major war scare in 1983. I won’t go on. But this continues. The most recent case is the bin Laden assassination. Unfortunately, none of this is discussed. Try to find some discussion of it.

And there are other cases waiting. In fact, three cases are on the front pages right now, so let’s take a look at them. These are North Korea, Iran, and China.

As you know, in the last couple of weeks North Korea has been issuing wild and dangerous threats. They’re an unpredictable place. All of this is attributed here to the lunacy of North Korean leaders. Arguably, this is the worst country in the world, with the most grotesque leadership in the world. But there are some questions that we shouldn’t ignore. For example, we could ask how we would react if a superpower that had virtually leveled the U.S. in the most intense bombing in history were right now carrying out simulated nuclear attacks on our border by the most advanced bombers in the world, stealth B2 and B52 bombers. That’s part of an escalating crisis that began with U.S. South Korean war games. They’re regular, but these included for the first time

a simulation of a preemptive attack in an all-out war scenario against North Korea.

Their lunatic leaders know all this.

And they can presumably also read official U.S. military publications, which we choose not to read, though it’s not a good choice. We should read them. They’re public. So, for example, the official Air Force History and Air Force Strategic Studies Quarterly. Take a look back at the enthusiastic description of the exciting military operations that were carried out a month before the 1953 armistice. At that time there was nothing left to bomb anymore in North Korea. Everything above ground had been almost destroyed. I’ll just read what you can read there, if you turn to it.

They turned to bombing the dams.

That’s, incidentally, a war crime for which people were hanged at Nuremberg, but put that aside.

This object lesson in air power to all the Communist world [the attack on the major irrigation dam] is highly successful, caused a flash flood that scooped clear 27 miles of valley below. Along with other attacks on dams, this devastated 75% of the controlled water supply for North Korea’s rice production. It sent the commissars scurrying to the press and radio centers to blare to the world the most severe, hate-filled harangues to come from the Communist propaganda mill in the three years of warfare. To the Communists, the smashing of the dams meant primarily the destruction of their chief sustenance, rice. Westerners can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of this staple food commodity has for Asians—starvation and slow death. Hence the show of rage, the flare of violent tempers, and the threats of reprisals when bombs fell on the five irrigation dams.

In other words, these stupid gooks just can’t perceive the elegance of our technological achievements. They can read that, even if we choose not to because we don’t want to know anything about ourselves.

There is also a more recent history that they no doubt know very well, as does the leading U.S. scholarship on the topic. I’ll review some high points. I’m quoting top American scholarship, a study by Leon Sigal in this case. Here’s a couple of recent high points. In 1993, North Korea was about to strike a deal with Israel. The deal would be that North Korea would end missile and other weapons exports to the Middle East, which is an enormous value for Israeli security, and in return Israel would recognize North Korea. Clinton intervened. He pressured Israel to reject it. They do what they’re told. Consider the relations of power. It’s obvious. North Korea reacted. They retaliated by carrying out their first test of a medium-range missile.

A year later, there was a so-called framework agreement between North Korea and the United States as to nuclear issues. Actually, neither side observed the agreement completely, but they mostly kept to it. Things kept stable until President Bush took office. At the time when he took office—I’m now quoting U.S. scholarly studies—

the North Koreans had stopped testing long-range missiles. They had one or two bombs’ worth of plutonium and were verifiably not making more.

That’s when Bush came in. Bush’s aggressive militarism and threats and “axis of evil” and all the rest quickly led to a revival of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. By 2006 North Korea had developed eight to ten nuclear weapons and had resumed long-range missile tests. One of the many successes of the neocons.

A year earlier, 2005, an agreement had been reached under which

North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing weapons programs and allow international inspections in return for international aid and a non-aggression pledge with the United States along with commitments from the two sides to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize relations.

That didn’t work. The Bush administration immediately undermined that agreement. Immediately. They disbanded the international consortium that had been set up to provide North Korea with light water reactors, they renewed the threat of force, they pressured international banks to freeze North Korea’s hard currency accounts that included proceeds from ordinary foreign trade. And then North Korea reacted, predictably, in their strange and incomprehensible ways.

There have been other interactions since. I won’t run through them. Sigal concludes that

North Korea has been playing tit for tat, reciprocating whenever Washington cooperates, retaliating whenever Washington reneges.

It’s doubtless a horrible place, but the record does suggest directions that could be taken to reduce the threat of war, if that were a concern, not military maneuvers and simulated nuclear bombing on the borders. You can think that one through.

Let’s turn to what’s called “the gravest threat to world peace”—I’m now quoting both presidential candidates Obama and Romney in the last foreign policy debate, duly repeated the next day in the nation’s press— Iran’s nuclear program. That raises a couple questions. Who thinks it’s the greatest threat to world peace and what is the threat? We have answers to that. It’s a Western obsession, primarily a U.S. obsession. The nonaligned countries—that’s most of the world—have vigorously supported repeatedly, quite recently again, Iran’s right to enrich uranium. As signers of the Nonproliferation Treaty, they have that the right.

What about the Arab world right next to them? What we hear and what we read is that the Arabs support the U.S. on Iran, which is not totally false, because in the U.S., when we talk about a country, we talk about the dictators, not the people. And it’s true that the dictators tend to support U.S. policy. But we know something about the irrelevant people. There are regular polls taken by U.S. polling agencies in the Arab world. The results are quite interesting. The Arabs don’t like Iran. There are hostilities that go back forever. But they don’t regard it as much of a threat. They don’t like it, but they don’t regard it as a threat. They do see threats—the United States and Israel. Those they regard as major threats. In fact a poll right before the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt found that though Egyptians don’t like Iran, a pretty large majority of them, thought the region might be more secure if Iran had nuclear weapons to fend off the authentic threats, U.S. and Israel.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why the U.S. and its allies are so strongly opposed to any democratization in the Arab world. That’s not the rhetoric; I’m talking about the actions. The rhetoric is that we always love democracy, just as Stalin did and everyone did. But you don’t pay attention to soaring rhetoric. If you want to be serious, you look at actions. It’s obvious why the U.S. and England and France don’t want democracy in the Arab world. Democracy, if it means anything, means that public opinion is supposed to have some influence over policy. And what I’ve just mentioned are hardly the policies that the U.S. and its allies want.

What about the next question? What’s the threat supposed to be? Let’s say we take the U.S. point of view, that this is “the gravest threat to world peace.” What is it? Actually, there’s an authoritative answer to that. You can read it, you can find it on the Internet. It comes from the highest sources. The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence provide a review of the global security situation to Congress every year, and, of course, they talk about Iran. And they do regard it as a very grave threat. But it’s very interesting to read why. These are not secret documents, perfectly public. They say that Iran is not a military threat: it has very limited capacity to deploy force. Its military spending is low, even by the standards of the region, minuscule as compared to Israel or, of course, the U.S. They have a strategic doctrine. Their doctrine is defensive. It’s to try to deter an invasion long enough for diplomacy to set in. They, of course, talk about nuclear weapons. U.S. sources say they don’t know if Iran has a nuclear weapons program, but if it does, it would be part of their deterrent strategy. If any country needs a deterrent, it’s Iran. It’s surrounded on all sides by major nuclear powers. It’s under direct, constant threat by the global superpower, which is, incidentally, in violation of the UN Charter, if anybody cares about that. That’s what it means when Obama says all options are open. That means, I disregard the UN Charter, which bans the threat or use of force in international affairs. But by the Yglesias principle, we can put that aside. So they’re under constant, serious threat. Conceivably, they’re developing a deterrent.

Why is that a threat to us? Think it through. If you’re a rogue state and you’re the Godfather, and you have to control everything, and you have to have a right to use force wherever you like, then a deterrent is intolerable. So that’s a major threat to us. That’s what the threat is.

I might mention that there is another rogue state that follows the same principle—our Israeli client. And it can act with impunity, thanks to the protection from the Godfather. We saw an interesting case a couple of days ago. As you know, Israel bombed military installations in Syria. Why? If you read the generally approving accounts in the press, they did give a reason. It was to prevent the threat that Syria might give Hezbollah weapons. Why is that a threat to Israel? Because they could be used to deter an invasion of Lebanon. Israel has already invaded Lebanon five times. They might do it again. If Hezbollah has missiles, that’s a deterrent. And if you want to be the regional sub-Godfather, you can’t admit such a deterrent.

There’s a third question besides who thinks it’s a threat and what is the threat? And that is, how can you deal with the threat, whatever it is? There are some ways. For example, a way was found in May 2010, when Turkey and Brazil reached an agreement with Iran that Iran would send its low enriched uranium out of the country for storage to Turkey, and in return the West would provide Iran with isotopes that it needs for its medical reactors. As soon as that agreement was announced, the U.S. government and the media immediately launched into an attack on Brazil and Turkey for daring to end “the gravest threat to world peace.” Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, commented that

the U.S. refuses to take yes for an answer.

The foreign minister of Brazil was kind of annoyed, and he released a letter that had been sent from Obama to the president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, in which Obama had proposed exactly what they did, probably assuming that Iran wouldn’t accept and he could get some propaganda points. Well, Iran accepted. So therefore Obama raced new sanctions through the UN, Washington and the press denounced Brazil and Turkey for their effrontery, and that option was gone.

There’s a more far-reaching proposal. It happens to have been raised recently by the nonaligned countries, most of the world, but it’s an old proposal. It’s been pressed particularly by the Arab states for many years, Egypt in the forefront. That’s to move towards establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region. There are such zones around the world. And it’s one of the ways to take steps towards what in fact is our legal obligation to move to get rid of nuclear weapons. These are steps. In the Middle East it would be extremely important, because, after all, that’s where “the gravest threat to world peace” is.

Can you do anything about that? Yes, you can. For example, there was a possibility last December. There was supposed to be an international conference in Finland last December to take steps towards advancing this proposal to develop a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Israel said they wouldn’t attend the conference. In November, Iran said they would attend the conference. Within days, Obama called the conference off. The Arab states said they would press it anyway, but they can’t do anything. The European parliament passed a resolution appealing for quick renewal of the proposal, but they can’t do anything. In fact, the only people who could do anything are people like you, if citizens of the U.S. could do something about that. But there’s a precondition. They have to know about it. You can’t do anything if you’ve never heard of it. And you can’t hear of it, because the press, with astonishing uniformity, did not report a single word about this, any of it. Try to find it. It’s not orders from the government, it’s not collusion. It’s just kind of an internal understanding that you just don’t report things like that. So there won’t be any protest, and we may march on to what looks like a war.

Let’s finally have a couple of words about China. That’s a potential confrontation, maybe a serious one. Actually, China also has memories, just like North Korea. For example, the Chinese no doubt remember that in 1962, six months before the missile crisis, Kennedy sent offensive missiles with nuclear warheads to Okinawa aimed at China at a moment of extreme tension in the region. In 1962 there was kind of a war going on between India and China. You know, the weird Chinese, not happy about this. They remember it. It doesn’t get discussed here, because it’s our right. We’re the emperor, after all. We can molest the world. So it’s barely mentioned here.

China also can look around and see what’s happening. China is surrounded by U.S. military forces, all around it. Japan, which China has some memories of, is a major base for U.S. power. Okinawa, right to the south, is a huge base. The Okinawans have been trying to get rid of the American installations for years, protesting against them, but nothing doing. The U.S. is now, with Obama’s pivot to Asia, establishing new bases in northwestern Australia, in the Philippines, in Vietnam, in South Korea. There’s an island in South Korea called an “Island of Peace,” incidentally, the scene of huge massacres in 1948, when South Korea was under U.S. control. The U.S. and South Korea are now building a major naval base there, which is aimed at China. And Guam, of course. They can only see this as a threatening arc of military power that surrounds them, and also surrounds the waters that are crucial for their trade with the Middle East and elsewhere.

It’s kind of interesting to see how this is all formulated here. A couple of days ago The New York Times had an article very upset about China’s military buildup, incidentally, to a small fraction of ours. This is depicted as “a serious challenge to the United States in the waters around China.” “A serious challenge…in the waters around China.” This is not a challenge in the Caribbean or off the coast of California. Everybody would be blown away if there were any such challenge. But in the waters around China it’s a challenge. If you look at the U.S. strategic journals, analysts describe this confrontation as what they call “a classic security dilemma,” in which each side sees fundamental interests at stake over control of the waters around China. So the U.S. regards its policies of controlling those waters as defensive. China regards them as threatening, obviously. Similarly, the Chinese, oddly, are not happy when the U.S. sends the advanced nuclear aircraft carrier, George Washington, into waters near China that place Beijing within the range of its nuclear missiles. They don’t like that. Of course, the U.S. would never tolerate anything remotely like that. This “classic security dilemma” again makes sense on the assumption that the U.S. has the right to control most of the world by force, do what it wants, and that U.S. security, unlike everyone else’s, requires something approaching absolute global control, otherwise we’re not secure. An interesting notion, which goes back deep into American history.

Let me put that aside and turn to another threat to survival, not immediate but imminent. You’re all aware of it. It’s environmental catastrophe. The facts are familiar to anyone who bothers to read scientific journals. And each one is more alarming than the last one. To take a couple of very recent reports, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a government administration, gave its latest report on ocean surface temperatures off the northeast U.S. coast. They’re the highest in 150 years, with drastic effects on ecosystems. They keep going up. A couple weeks before that Science magazine, the main scientific weekly, reported a study that showed that

even slightly warmer temperatures, which are less than what’s anticipated in the coming years, could start melting permafrost [mainly in Siberia], which in turn will trigger the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases, methane—[much worse than carbon dioxide]—that are trapped in the ice and that will set off escalating nonlinear processes of destruction.

Geologists and archeologists are now considering establishment of a new geological era. History is broken up into geological eras. The new era they are discussing is what they’re calling the Anthropocene, starting with the Industrial Revolution, which is having huge effects on the Earth. The preceding era, the Holocene, begins around 11,000 years ago, about the time of the rise of agriculture. And the age before that, the Pleistocene, lasted 2 1/2 million years. You take a look at the acceleration and that gives an indication of the fate towards which we’re careening. Meanwhile, research papers in the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, super-respectable, report,

One hundred nine countries have enacted some form of policy regarding renewable power and 118 countries have set targets for renewable energy. In contrast, one country, the United States, has not adopted any consistent and stable set of policies at the national level to foster the use of renewable energy.

That’s not because of public opinion. Public opinion strongly supports measures to deal with the looming crisis. U.S. public opinion is not very far from that in other parts of the world.

That’s kind of interesting, because, as I’m sure you know, there has been a massive corporate offensive here for years to convince the public that either there’s no global warming at all or, if there is, we don’t have anything to do with it, no human contribution. That offensive is escalating, accelerating right now in interesting ways because of fears in the corporate sector that the public is just too infected by scientific rationality. That’s as big a threat as a deterrent. An interesting program is being initiated by a group you may know of, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. It sounds innocuous. It’s a corporate-funded group that proposes legislation for state legislatures. You can imagine what they propose. And they’ve got plenty of clout, given the wealth and power behind them, so a lot of these get accepted. There’s a new one that’s just being started that’s for K-to-12, kindergarten to 12th grade, education programs. They’re trying to convince state legislatures that they should introduce what they call “balanced teaching to develop critical thinking.” That sounds good. What’s “balanced teaching”? That means along with teaching what’s called “climate science,” you should teach climate change denial to kindergarteners and all the way up. Then they will have critical thinking and we’ll be better off. There are a couple of states that have already adopted it. We can expect a lot more like this.

Let’s put this aside and imagine what a future historian, assuming that there is one, and it’s not obvious that there will be—looks back at what’s happening right before our eyes, looks back at the early 21st century. For the first time in history humans are facing quite significant prospects of severe calamity, maybe destruction of the possibilities of decent survival, as a result of actions of theirs. It’s not secret. The facts are before our eyes. Despite the efforts of the corporate sector to conceal them, most people see them.

There’s a range of reactions around the world. At one extreme there are some who are trying to act decisively to prevent possible catastrophe. At the other extreme, policies are designed to enhance the threat, while the most powerful domestic actors are undertaking major efforts to deny what’s happening and to dumb down the population so they won’t interfere with short-term profits.

Leading the effort to intensify the likely disaster is the richest and most powerful country in world history, with incomparable advantages, along with Canada, which is in many ways even worse. We’re leading the effort. Leading the effort to preserve conditions in which our immediate descendants might have a decent life are the so-called primitive societies, the First Nations, tribal societies, indigenous societies, aboriginal societies. That’s going on all over the world. In the Western Hemisphere, for example, the countries with large indigenous populations, Bolivia and Ecuador, are pursuing efforts to introduce what they call “rights of nature.” We’ve got to protect “rights of nature.” Ecuador has a big indigenous population, it’s a majority in Bolivia. Ecuador is an oil producer, but they’re seeking financial aid from the rich countries so that they can keep the oil underground, where it’s supposed to be. That’s the backward, primitive societies. Meanwhile, here we’re racing with total enthusiasm towards quick disaster. Every time Obama or anyone else talks about 100 years of energy independence, as if it meant anything, what they’re saying is, Let’s destroy the world as fast as we can. So suppose we get every drop of hydrocarbons out by fracking and tar sands and anything else you can think of. What’s the world going to look like? Not our concern. That’s the concern of primitive, backward people, who have these sentimental ideas about the rights of nature. That’s what a future historian will see, if there is one.

Let me just make a last comment about this. All of this traces back to Magna Carta, 800 years ago. The Magna Carta had two components. One is the Charter of Liberties, the famous one, which I discussed, the foundation of Anglo-American law, now being torn to shreds before our eyes. The other part is what was called the Charter of Forests. That was dedicated to protection of the commons from the ravages of the power centers of the day. That record is preserved for us in things like the Robin Hood myths. That’s what they’re about.

What are the commons? The commons weren’t just the forests. They were the source of sustenance for the general population: food, fuel, welfare. There’s the classic image that goes back to the Bible of widows gleaning things from the commons for fuel and food. That’s what the commons were. They were very carefully nurtured and protected for centuries by people like these primitive, backward people today who are trying to save the planet.
In capitalist ethics, there’s a different concept. It’s called the tragedy of the commons. That’s familiar. The thesis is that if the common possessions are left to the population, they will be destroyed, so you have to privatize them and put them into the hands of the Koch brothers and so on. Then they’ll be protected. That’s capitalist ethics. Unless common possessions are privatized, they will be destroyed. There’s a principle behind it. It’s the principle that Adam Smith described as what he called “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind”: everything for ourselves and nothing for anyone else. That’s the concept that has to be drilled into people’s heads to make them total sociopaths. The reality is, of course, quite the opposite. Privatization leads to the destruction of the commons in pursuit of “the vile maxim.”

What happened to the Charter of the Forests that was an equal part of Magna Carta? It was dismantled with the rise of capitalism in England centuries ago by enclosures and other measures to privatize the commons. It was followed centuries later in the United States. This central part of Magna Carta has long been forgotten, apart from the traditional societies that are trying to fend off the disaster that’s approaching as we, in our brilliance, lead the way off the cliff like the proverbial lemmings.

(Due to time constraints some portions of the lecture were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P .O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977 ©2013

Posted in Big picture, Corporate bonding and domination, Department of Offense, Economic injustice, John Birch ilk, Kafkaesque Amerika, Liberal ineffectiveness, The American Dream | Leave a comment

Corporations, communities, and the environment

Thomas Linzey
Eugene, Oregon
2 March 2013

Communities across the country, trying to stop a wide range of threats and unwanted projects such as gas drilling and fracking, mining, pipelines, factory farming, sewage sludging, landfills, coal shipments and GMOs, all run into the same problem: they don’t have the legal authority to say “no” to them. With their high priced lawyers and huge political influence corporadoes shape the law. That may be changing. A recent court ruling in Pennsylvania says that corporations are not “persons.” They cannot elevate their “private rights” above the rights of people. Others can’t wait for the legal system to catch up. Sandra Steingraber, noted biologist and scholar, shortly after appearing on Bill Moyers and on Alternative Radio, has gone to jail. In an act of civil disobedience, Steingraber and others blocked the entrance to a natural gas storage facility in the pristine Seneca Lakes region of upstate New York.

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Thomas Linzey is an attorney and co-founder and executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and serves as its chief legal counsel. He is the author of Be the Change: How to Get What You Want in Your Community. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, and The Nation.

You can listen to Thomas Linzey speak for himself here.

So let’s get down to business. This is being recorded for about 175 radio stations across the U.S. and Canada, thanks to David Barsamian on Alternative Radio. That basically means I can’t swear, which is what I usually do during these presentations. So let’s get down to it. We’re fucked. Generally, when I say that at smaller events—and they’re going to have gone to bleep that out, I understand—I’m sorry, David—there’s three things that people say to me.

They say,

Well, you can’t say that, because if you say that, then people lose hope. And when people lose hope, they won’t do anything. They won’t appeal regulatory permits, they won’t get active in doing regulatory work, they won’t try to ask corporations to do X, Y, and Z for them.

The second thing people say is that,

If we say it’s fucked, which is it is, then we will lose funding, because there’s no funder, there’s no foundation, program officer that wants to hear, “Hey we’re fucked,” because then there’s nothing we can do.

And the third group of people that come up to me after the talk—and some are really offended—say,

You can’t say that because it’s just not true. Things aren’t worse now than they were 40 years ago when we passed the major environmental laws.

You people snicker and laugh, but I get it all the time. In fact, I got it talking to a foundation program officer a couple weeks ago for a major foundation. He said,

Well, of course things aren’t worse today than they were 40 years ago. Rivers don’t catch on fire.

And I said,

Well, if that’s our standard now, we’ve got some really serious problems.

So on the first point that, when you say we’re screwed and that things are hopeless and that our work isn’t working—because I don’t think it is—and the things we’re doing aren’t working, on the first one, that hopeless piece, Derrick Jensen probably says it best. I think he’s one of the best writers of our generation. Here’s what Derrick has to say about hope, in a piece called “Beyond Hope,” which everybody should read. It’s the best piece I’ve read in a long, long time. He says giving up hope is a good thing. And this is a quote from Derrick’s piece. He says,

Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.

He writes,

I’m not going to say “I hope I eat something tomorrow.” I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I write this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency or control concerning it.

He writes further in the piece,

Having hope is about having hope that someone else is going to save you—a regulatory agency, a corporation, the Sierra Club, Alpha Centauri, beings from another world— that someone else has control over our destiny and our job is to influence them or attempt to put pressure on them because we don’t have it.

The second thing that people come up to talk to me about is you can’t say you’re screwed because the funders don’t want to hear it, money won’t come in. Well, that one is between your foundation program officer and you, if you have one.

The last one I’m going to talk about now, which is people coming up and saying,

Well, it’s just not true things are worse now than they were 40 years ago before the major environmental laws were passed.

So I have some numbers now. I used to go without these, but now I have them. And they’re very, very depressing and dismal, so we’ll get through them as quickly as possible. Here are a couple. Each year in the U.S. alone 570 billion pounds of municipal waste is produced, with 60% of that waste ending up in landfills or incinerators. Four billion pounds of toxic chemicals, including 72 million pounds of known carcinogens, are released into the atmosphere from 20,000 industrial polluters. Two trillion pounds of livestock waste laced with antibiotics, hormones, and chemicals are dumped into waterways and applied to land. Eleven million people live within 1 mile of a federal Superfund site. Eighty thousand industrial chemicals currently are in use in the U.S., with more than 700 now found within every human body. Eighteen hundred new chemicals are introduced annually. Forty percent of our waterways fail to meet even the minimal requirements of federal and state clean water laws. More than 90% of America’s original forests have now been logged. Over 70% of all biodiversity on the planet has now been lost, according to a major conservation organization. And in July of 2011 the United Nations declared our situation “a major planetary catastrophe.”

In the 1990s, when we got our start, things weren’t rosy. It’s not like these things have come into being overnight. In the 1990s, we got our start with the Legal Defense Fund. Note to law students: If you decide to start your own law firm without funding in place or some place to go for that, generally not a good idea. We raised about $3,000 the first year. I think it was the right decision to make, but there are tough times ahead for folks who form their own law firms right out of law school. What did we do when we came out of law school? We formed the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. The point of the Legal Defense Fund was to say to ourselves when we were in law school that if the U.S. has the best environmental laws in the world—and in fact, our laws are so good, apparently, that we export them to other countries on a routine basis—that if our environmental laws in the U.S. are so good, that the reason why things are so fucked in the U.S. must be because we don’t have enough lawyers enforcing those laws. There’s several hundred full-time public-interest environmental lawyers in the U.S. doing this kind of work. We decided to add one more, which was me.

We began to do work for free. We opened our doors up to community organizations that were being inflicted upon by a toxic waste landfill or sewage sludge being dumped or toxic emissions or a pipeline coming in or all those types of things. We would represent those community groups, primarily in Pennsylvania, to go through the regulatory process.

I don’t know if anybody has ever seen the film Groundhog Day with Bill Murray from the 1990s? Groundhog Day for us would always start the same, which was a phone call from the community organization that would say,

We need your help. We can’t afford a lawyer to fight this toxic-waste incinerator that’s coming in. We need help to fight it because we don’t want it. Our community doesn’t want it here. Our definition of sustainability for our community means that we don’t have a toxic-waste incinerator in the middle of it or a 25,000-head hog factory farm in the middle of our community.

We would say to them,

Well, we’re sorry

—this was the traditional spiel, and still is today by most traditional environmental lawyers—

We’re sorry, but we can’t help you stop it because the law does not recognize your community’s authority to actually say no to the thing coming in. The entire nub of what our Democracy Schools are built around is that the law does not recognize that your municipality, your community has the ability or authority to say no to a federal or a state permitted project. Once a state has permitted it, the municipality can’t say no to it. In fact, the law is generally that if something is a legal use, l-e-g-a-l, that the community has no power to actually say no to it.

So what do we do as environmental lawyers? Well, we become experts on the regulations. We become experts on Section 25(c)(d)(I)(2)(c)(d)(i)(2)(e)(f), and we end up arguing in front of regulatory agencies or administrative law judges that something is missing from the permit application that has been put in by the corporations trying to put the project into the municipality. Most times, just by showing up, in some ways in rural communities, because 90% of these communities never hire an attorney, they never have input into the regulatory process, never show up, we would generally win. Which meant that we would find the signature that was left out or the macro invertebrate study or the hydro study that was outdated that the corporation had submitted with the permit application. And we would argue to the judge that something was missing from what was required by the environmental regulations or the permit application and we would win in front of the judge.

What would happen next was the community group that we were assisting would have a victory party. So they would call us back to the house, and we would have some wine and beer and snacks, and people would pat themselves on the back and they would say,

The system works. We came together around our kitchen table. We found a problem that we were having in the community, we found the right lawyer to represent us, the judge listened to us, he actually ruled in our favor. And now we’re not going to get the toxic waste incinerator in our community. The system worked.

What would happen three months from then or six months from then or a year later is that the corporation would come back. In fact, at those regulatory hearings I had lawyers from Waste Management Corporation and other major corporations come up to me and thank me, because we had found a deficiency or an omission or something that had been left out of their permit application. So three, six months, a year later the corporation would come back, and this time they would have a new and improved permit application for the process. They would have filled in the signature, they would have had the new hydro study or macro invertebrate study done or whatever else had to be put into the regulations and the permit application. I’m shortening this down, but we would go through this process with them for 8 or 10 or 12 cycles. Some groups are still at it, trying to stop Wal-Marts in central Pennsylvania for 8 or 9 or 10 years. Because we’re in a system that doesn’t recognize our authority to actually say no to those things coming in, we fight with what we have; we fight with what we have been given.

The nasty little secret about that time period, of our lives, at least, was that as soon as that permit application came back, that new and improved permit application from the corporation came back, that the community group would come back to us and say,

Mr. Linzey, we need you to do that jujitsu again that you did the first time around to keep the toxic-waste incinerator from being built in the community.

And we would look back at them and we would say,

We’re sorry. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do for you anymore, because the corporation has now dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s in the permit application.

So we had a win-loss record at the Legal Defense Fund of about 130 and 4. We were on fire. The problem was, if you actually set foot in the communities that we were representing, you would see absolutely no resemblance between the community that was getting the toxic-waste incinerator and our win-loss record as a law firm. But that didn’t stop the progressive community from giving us awards, from giving us money. We got invited to the White House one year by Al Gore to celebrate the best environmental law firms in the U.S. that year. It didn’t seem to matter that environmental law seemed to not be working in these situations. So we had a crisis in our office. We decided that we had not created the Legal Defense Fund just to build better permit applications for the corporations.

It was about at that time that we started talking to some other folks that were having experiences with the regulatory system and how environmental law is practiced. One of those people was a woman named Jane Anne Morris. She bills herself as a corporate anthropologist. Jane Anne Morris said a couple things which still resonate with me today. She said,

The only thing that environmental regulations regulate are environmentalists, because they make us predictable in how we oppose projects that are coming into our community. Because the regulations are written by the very corporations that ostensibly the regulatory structure is supposed to regulate. Do we really believe that regulatory structures written by the very corporations that those structures are supposed to regulate are going to recognize any rights for the communities in which they do business, especially rights to say no, which we don’t have under the law?

In addition to that, Jane Anne Morris said another thing to me which blew my mind. She said,

You know all the monies that get spent by the corporations to fight off the permit appeals that you file

—because at least I thought we were costing the corporate boys some money when we walked into the administrative law courts—

the monies that the corporations spend fighting the permit appeals are tax-deductible as reasonable and necessary business expenses under the law. They can write them off.

Jane Anne has this great piece that she wrote which we use in the Democracy School. The title of it is,

Help. I’ve been colonized and I can’t get up.

The subtitle is

Take a lawyer and an expert to a hearing and call me in a decade.

This is what she has to say:

At regulatory agencies corporate persons have constitutional rights to due process and equal protection that human persons, affected citizens, don’t have. For noncorporate human citizens

—that’s us—

there’s a democracy theme park where we can pull levers on voting machines and talk into microphones at hearings. But don’t worry, they’re not connected to anything and nobody is listening except for us. What regulatory law regulates is citizen input, not corporate behavior.

That’s what Jane Anne has to say.

So what did we do? We had a crisis in our office. We said,

We were constructed, we were built to protect the natural environment, to protect communities and do all that mom-and-apple-pie kind of stuff. And instead we found ourselves building better permit applications for the corporate boys that wanted to come in and put in projects.

So we decided to shut down the office, we decided to close, because we decided we could do other things and other things would be more effective than trying to enforce environmental law in this context.

In addition to that I should mention, we weren’t just doing permit appeals and regulatory stuff. We were challenging environmental impact statements under the National Environmental Policy Act, we were doing Clean Water Act litigation, attempting to enforce clean water dictates. We were across the board dealing with environmental laws that seemed to us to be not about protecting the natural environment but instead about easing certain projects in by carving off some of the harms that were caused by some of those projects coming in. It wasn’t about actually stopping the projects, no matter how harmful they are to the natural environment.

The National Environmental Policy Act is a perfect example. You have environmental impact statements that have to be prepared if federal monies are used for a project, but nowhere in the law does it say that the entity, the agency, has to select the most environmentally sound alternative. So we were challenging road projects in Virginia. What the agency would say is, Yes, this is going to extinguish this ecosystem, this is going to kill this stuff off, but we still think it’s a great idea, and we complied with the federal environmental laws by simply disclosing the harms. That’s how NEPA is built, that’s how the EIS stuff is built.

As we were closing down our office in Pennsylvania, something interested happened, which was a spate of phone calls from a constituency that we were not established to assist. The constituency that started to come in our door was local elected officials from rural south- central Pennsylvania. What was their problem and why were they turning to us? They were turning to us because agribusiness corporations were driving their way up from North Carolina and South Carolina to site a bunch of mega factory hog farms in south-central Pennsylvania. These are the biggest agribusiness corporations on the planet.

Just to give you an idea of how agriculture has been corporatized over the years, six corporations currently control 80% of the pork processing market in the U.S., four corporations control 60% of chicken processing, one corporation, Kraft, controls about 80% of cheese processing in the U.S. today. Suicide among farmers is now the number one cause of non-natural death for farmers in the U.S. It’s a statistic that began in 2004. So when we’re talking about corporatization of agriculture, we’re talking about more than just changing methods of production. We’re talking about extinguishing generations-old farms and ways of life and implement dealers and open livestock auctions and all those kinds of things that keep rural communities alive.

In the late 1990s, as we were closing down our office and these calls started coming in, the calls were coming in because there was slated and proposed a span of factory farms to run through about eight counties in the south- central Pennsylvania. The municipalities and the elected officials didn’t want the factory farms coming in, for a bunch of reasons: number one, impact on farmers; number two, impact on property values; number three, the environmental pollution, water pollution, stuff that flows when you jam these animals into these intensive livestock operations.

For the last 10 years municipal governments in Pennsylvania in that area had passed very stringent manure disposal laws. We’re not going to get into the details here, but suffice it to say that those laws, in the best environmental regulatory tradition, tried to make it too expensive for liquid manure from the factory farms to be applied to land in those municipalities. So for a number of years factory farms couldn’t set up shop because of those environmental regulations. What happened when the big agribusiness corporations came into town, the town being the state of Pennsylvania, is they went to the legislature and they drafted something called the Nutrient Management Act. The Nutrient Management Act promptly removed control over any factory farm regulation from the local municipalities and centralized it at the state level, making putting in a factory farm merely a planning process that you had to file a plan with the state agency for rather than go through any kind of local ordinances that might interfere with those operations coming in.

So imagine yourself being a municipal official in south-central Pennsylvania. Your residents are screaming at you. They’re saying,

We don’t want to lose 60% of our property value if we live within three-quarters of a mile of one of these mega hog factory farms. We don’t want the smell and the water pollution and everything else that comes with us.

And there was some inkling of a conversation about, Why should agribusiness corporations decide what farming looks like in our community rather than us, rather than the farmers that actually live in that community? So the calls in to the office took on a different tenor at that point, where we still had our phones hooked up for those calls to come in.

The calls got much more complex. It might have been something in the water or the air, I don’t know. Something was changing about that time in the way people think about environmental law, I think, at least at the community level. These folks would get me on the phone, and we would say

What could we do?

and they would say,

Well, we have this corporate factory farm coming in.

And they would say,

We don’t want it. Our farmers here don’t want a 25,000-head hog factory farm in the middle of our community.

And they said,

We want to say no to it, we want to stop it.

We tried to give them the old song and dance, which is embedded in our heads, in my head since law school, which was,

I’m sorry, you can’t stop it because it’s going to have a state permit and it’s a permit operation. You can’t say no to it within the municipality.

And these folks—and keep in mind this is rural south-central Pennsylvania, an NRA membership area, local control, folks that had been in office for 30-40 years at the local level, very small municipalities—asked me one question, which threw me off for the next 15 years. They asked,

Why? Why can’t we say no?

So I was on the other end, and I said,

Well, you can’t say no because if you do try to prohibit a factory farm from coming into your municipality, you’re going to get sued, and you’re going to get sued by the agribusiness corporation that contends that you’re violating the corporation’s constitutional rights under the law. Because when you pass an ordinance that bans a legal use, the corporation comes in and uses the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to say to the court, You’ve taken our property, because you’re not allowing us to do what we want in your community. This ordinance is stopping it. Therefore, we’re going to sue you. Not only are we going to sue you for breaching or violating our constitutional rights, we’re going to sue you under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which is a civil rights law, for damages incurred as a result of the passage of the ordinance to things like future lost profits of the corporation. That’s how the system operates. That’s not the exception, that’s the default.

So again the folks on the other end of the line would ask me another question, which I didn’t know how to answer. He said,


Being the lawyer, you give the lawyerly story, which is,

Corporations got constitutional rights way back in the early 1800s. Corporations became persons in the 1800s through the Supreme Court, through other federal courts, in which corporations now have the same rights as you or I. And by virtue of their wealth, they can exercise those rights more fully than you or I. It was those places, those Supreme Court cases and going back to 1800 and to the other jurisprudence, that corporations gained this control. That in essence the corporate board of directors has more decision making in your community than you do, because it creates that special layer of law.

To which the folks at the other end of the line said again,

Why? Why were corporations given those rights?

So, a typical lawyer, you say,

Well, it actually goes back to the U.S. Constitution.

In some ways the U.S. Constitution is a property document. It’s no secret. The U.S. Constitution protects property and commerce above other rights.

You can look at the U.S. Constitution and thumb through it all you want, but you won’t find a couple words mentioned. One is “nature.” Forget about it. Another one is “labor.” Forget about that one, too, unless you’re looking at a provision that uses the phrase “bonded labor,” which is about returning slaves to their owners as property, which is also in the Constitution. That stuff isn’t there. So when the environmental laws were passed, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, all of the good stuff that we have, the civil rights laws, the Violence Against Women Act, all that good stuff that’s been passed has all been passed under the authority of the commerce clause of the Constitution.

It’s kind of wacky. People say,

What does that matter? At least it’s there. At least we have a place to plant our feet.

And the answer is, essentially, the Constitution sees everything in terms of property protection. That’s how it works, that’s how it’s structured. And because of that, when we actually make arguments about things like protecting the environment or nature in contexts that are outside of commerce, like protecting nature for its own sake or protecting a community’s right to say no when that interferes with commerce, the system looks back at you with glazed-over eyes and doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say. It’s like speaking Greek to a French person: it just doesn’t fit, because the system runs a different way.

So these supervisors, these folks in rural Pennsylvania, said back to me on the phone, calling in, and said,

Why is that? Why is the Constitution written in such a way? The Constitutional structure seems to screw us automatically. So in our communities if we oppose a factory farm or a toxic-waste incinerator, we don’t run up against the corporation first. We run up against our own Constitution first. We run into a constitutional structure first that doesn’t recognize our authority to be self- governing within our own community, let alone talking about things like the rights of nature.

So these folks would say,

Why is that?

And we would say,

Well, it’s because of something called the English Common Law. The folks who wrote the U.S. Constitution were basted in this thing called English Common Law, which was a system of law that essentially legalized colonialism. And England was the top bill, they were the folks developing the most. So you have Hamilton and you have Dickinson and you have Madison talking about English Common Law as the best thing in the world, and that the U.S. constitutional structure was about replicating that system of law. There’s no place in that for us if we’re a community that’s being hit with X, Y, and Z or for ecosystems themselves to be treated differently as property.

Then they would say,

Why is that?

I would say,

Because God said so. I don’t know. Because we’re at the end of this conversation and we’ve got other things to do.

So that why question has actually plagued us since the Democracy Schools. We actually use 15-hour trainings to take community folks through a series of historical stuff to show them why they’re in the position that they’re in. Because when community groups get hit with something, the first thing they do is call up the DEP or whatever it’s called in your state, the environmental agency. In Pennsylvania it’s called the Department of Environmental Protection, or for many communities there it’s known as the Department of Everything Permitted. So you have the DEP. And other folks pick up the phone and call their local government. The DEP says,

Well, we’re so glad you called. Hire a lawyer and get involved in the regulatory process. It won’t allow you to stop it, but you can, of course, publicly comment and be part of that process.

The others call is to the municipal government. The municipal government sometimes says,

Our hands are tied. We can’t do anything. It’s a state issue. Go talk to your legislator and change the law.

Fat chance of that.

So through the years we started getting these questions, and we decided that we weren’t going to close down. The municipal governments and elected officials said to us,

What can we do?

And we said,

We have no idea what you can do.

And they said,

Why don’t you help us figure out what we can do?

And we said


So we started looking at the laws that have been passed in different places on agribusiness issues. It turns out that in 1902—I had no idea till 12:30 at night, falling over some old law text trying to find it—the people of Oklahoma, mostly family farmers and communities, came together and banned corporations from farming. 1902, right? Nine states followed the lead, including, in the late 1990s South Dakota and Nebraska, through Initiative 300 and Amendment E, actually took the anti-corporate farming laws and drove them into their state constitutions.

So folks in those Midwestern states began to frame the problem a lot differently. It wasn’t about water pollution or air pollution or parts per million or paper versus plastic or all the bullshit that we argue about when we get into the regulatory stuff. That if the problem was the corporatization of agriculture, then the solution is to get corporations out of agriculture. So they moved to do that. The frame was different. Rather than dealing with the manifestations of the environmental harms that flow from those projects, instead attempting to preempt them by taking control and writing the rules themselves.

So that without pride of authorship, we borrowed Amendment E, we reworked it into a local ordinance, and we actually sent it in to these Pennsylvania municipalities to begin adopting. And they did. The first one, in 2001, was a small community of 550 people, called Wells Township, a little place called Fulton County, right above the border with Maryland. Eventually the ordinances spread to eastern Pennsylvania, western Pennsylvania, north-central Pennsylvania, as communities began having a new conversation—not one about how many tons or gallons of liquid hog manure can be legally applied to an acre of land, but instead towards something based on the right of the community to decide what farming would look like there rather than a corporate board of directors located 3,000 miles away.

That conversation that started in 2001 has accelerated, expanded to today. In addition to the factory farm issues, in Pennsylvania we have a sludge problem. Typical of the environmental laws, which essentially are good at one thing—which is transferring pollution from one medium to another, so from water to land or from land to air—with the sewage sludge situation, all the sludge coming out of the centralized sewage treatment plants to clean up the waterways, we actually took the toxins and pollutants and put it into the sludge cake, which is the solid stuff, which goes to say that you can’t put “cake” after everything and make it sound that much better. The sludge cake itself we used to dump off the coast of New Jersey. And then the major environmental groups did us a real favor and worked for a program that was approved by the EPA to dump it on land where we grow our crops. So all of those 60,000 different pollutants that are in that sewage-sludge stream that we now try to keep it of the waterways, we now dump on farm land. And four corporations control 90% of the market for hauling the sludge from the treatment plants to the farmland. In Pennsylvania we’ve had two kids die from exposure to sewage sludge. We named the Democracy School after one of those kids.

The municipalities that were faced with getting sludge dumped from Philadelphia—because, guess what, Philadelphia’s municipal treatment plant doesn’t dump sludge near the multimillion-dollar houses in suburban Philly, they actually send it out into the hinterlands, into the rural T of Pennsylvania to be dumped in these rural communities—a lot of these communities said,

We don’t want it anymore. We don’t want your shit coming from your place and being dumped in our home.

So they began to work with us to take the anti-corporate-farming laws and make them into anti-corporate-sludging laws, which actually prohibited the corporations from bringing sludge into those municipalities. Those began to multiply quite quickly: we went from five to 10 to 15 to 20. We’re up to 86. And on the factory farm laws, we’re up to about two dozen in the state of Pennsylvania.

As you can imagine—and the question is probably burgeoning in your head—you say,

Mr. Linzey, you said we can’t do that. We can’t ban X, Y, and Z.

It turns out, when you attempt to actually begin to synthesize new law, and new law which is based on community self- governance, that there’s a reaction. And the reaction is not equal but an unequal one. So in the years following this stuff moving, keeping in mind that 10% of all rural municipalities in the Pennsylvania had passed our ordinances, which really began to pull the teeth from some of these corporate boys who were attempting to use those municipalities for their own projects, two things happened: one was a lawsuit was filed by one of the major factory-farm agribusiness corporations against one of our municipalities, and the other one was that state legislature started to take action.

So on the lawsuit first, there were several filed. What was fascinating to me, watching them come in, was that they could have been written on the same computer, with the same boilerplate, with the same paragraphs, with the same everything. Because in the system and structure of laws set up in this country to actually make municipalities and communities where you live subordinate to the corporations that are coming in, in addition to corporate personhood, this concept that corporations are persons and they have certain rights they can exercise against the community, corporations also have something called commerce clause rights, that corporations can use the interstate commerce clause to knock down law making that interferes with the commerce interests of those corporations. As much as we talk about corporate personhood, corporate commerce clause rights are actually used more than that to overturn laws. In addition to those two, we have things called Dillon’s Rule, which says your community can’t pass any law that’s not specifically been authorized to be passed by the state legislature—it’s written by an ex-railroad lawyer who was an Iowa Supreme Court justice—and you have preemption. Preemption is the theory that the state and federal government can preempt completely what’s passed at the municipal level. We all as lawyers, those of us who are lawyers, pretty much buy into these doctrines in many ways. They’re referred to as well settled legal doctrines by the legal industry.

So these lawsuits that came in, you could literally read the complaints that came in from these corporations that were filing suit against the municipalities, and those four doctrines were laced throughout the complaint. So on page 1 it said, We are corporations, we are persons, you have violated our Fifth Amendment rights under the law, and you now owe us damages. Paragraph two was, You were not authorized to pass this because the state legislature hasn’t authorized you to do this law making. Point number three, You can’t do this law making because the Nutrient Management Act preempts you at the local level from being able to pass these things. And, of course, the corporate personhood stuff was meshed into that fourth claim.

So our communities, who had stepped outside the box—as Jane Anne Morris says,

Take a deep breath. We’re going over the wall,

that’s what she says—these communities, because they went over the wall, because they did something outside of the box, were saying,

Hey, the problem isn’t factory farms, really. The problem isn’t the environmental impacts from those facilities or sludge or whatever else, and the problem really isn’t the corporation itself. The problem is in many ways the structure of law itself.

It’s actually those doctrines which have been in some ways so IV’d into us since birth, not just the preemption and Dillon’s Rule stuff but the constitutional stuff, that the Founding Fathers were the greatest people that ever trod the planet, that our system of government is the bastion of democracy, and that if we don’t win regulatory fights, if we don’t win these fights that we’re involved in when the corporations come in to do X, Y, and Z, it’s our fault because we have the democratic system to use. We just didn’t get enough people to the demonstration, or we just didn’t get people to the church, or we didn’t have the right podium for the pads that we write on, or we didn’t bring the right microphone, the video camera, or whatever. We blame ourselves for failing within the system.

Meanwhile, the system is fixed. We’ve been snookered for a long, long time. No offense to the folks in this audience, but the fact is, the only people who see it are the folks who have to see it. Because they’re in places like Port Arthur, they’re in places where you run up directly against those legal doctrines. A lot of us try to go around them by doing things like, well, we need to negotiate an agreement with the corporation, or we need to buy the right stuff, or we need to invest in better stock, or we need to do all these voluntary fixes, self-help kind of stuff, like changing light bulbs, because we feel so disempowered by how the structure of law works.

It’s our proposition to you that the structure of law has to be dismantled. It has to come apart, because otherwise we’re cooked. Literally, we are cooked if we do not actually take that battle on. In the communities in Pennsylvania who started this conversation to change— when you’re talking about parts per million, particulate matter, and bringing experts in, doing all that kind of stuff, it limits the number of people who actually get involved in those campaigns, because they say,

I’m not an expert. Therefore, I don’t have a legitimate place here at the table or to speak about X, Y, and Z.

But when you start talking about rights—community and local self-governance and corporations having more rights than the communities into which the corporations are coming in to build or construct or whatever, you start getting something that approximates the foundations for the beginnings of a movement, a movement that says that the state government is not going to help us, the federal government is not going to help us, and the only way that we’re going to make change to those layers of law is to force it to happen by disobeying the law itself.

And it’s not so foreign. We’ve been at that place before in our history. The abolitionists didn’t advocate for establishing a slavery protection agency, right? They weren’t interested in an agency that regulated the numbers of lashes you could give daily to a slave. The suffragists, they didn’t just write letters to the White House. They voted. Virginia Minor and Susan B. Anthony, they went into ballot places and they cast ballots and they were arrested and they were thrown into jail and then they had trials. They understood that is when you don’t directly challenge the law, you are validating it automatically.

So these communities, the least likely of activists in some ways, the least likely of activists—folks that are first-time activists, coming into the stuff for the very first time, not long-term progressive activists or people who worked in the regulatory arena—didn’t have this stuff clouding their heads, all this past that said we have to do it this way or have to do it that way. They just said, This is the right thing, is actually to seize that ability, the authority for us to make decisions about what our community is going to look like in 20 or 40 or 60 years.

So they began coming to a conclusion. And that conclusion was, they had to take these doctrines on frontally, that the local ordinance making had to be more about just the imminent harm coming in when that imminent harm could be overridden. The ordinances could be overridden by those doctrines that were being brought against them. So they decided to begin writing these ordinances to directly challenge those legal doctrines which keep our communities subordinate to these corporations, because they understood that sustainability is impossible unless those people who are directly affected by the unsustainable practices are the ones who are deciding whether those practices occur. State legislatures, folks 500 miles away, they don’t care. The community is a dumping ground, it’s a toilet. They’re going to use it for as long as they can until people stand up and say

We’re not going to take it anymore.

The kids that sat in at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. They didn’t write letters to Woolworth’s. I suppose they did at the beginning. They said, Hey, please desegregate your lunch counters. But eventually, at some point, they said, No more. Things are so bad that we need to go in and actually break the law. We need to disobey the law. In a very structured way, but we need to do it. And so they did. In fact, this country is built on people not following the law. The Declaration of Independence, people breaking free, self-governance, all that stuff that’s built into us that we seem to have lost.

We think it’s time to return to that place. I think communities in Pennsylvania and other places certainly are beginning to lead the way, which is to say, the cost of doing nothing is more now than the cost of doing something, putting our municipalities on the line to take on these four legal doctrines. So they started to do that. Over 100 communities in Pennsylvania have passed those laws. In addition, the laws have spread. We have communities in New Hampshire and Maine who are taking on Nestlé corporation, saying, No corporate water withdrawals in our communities. There are folks in New Mexico and in Pennsylvania and elsewhere who have passed anti-fracking laws, saying, We’re not going to allow corporations to frac here. We have the first county in New Mexico which is going to ban all hydrocarbon extraction within their municipality. What are we waiting for? Seriously, how bad does shit have to get before we actually begin to be less obedient to how the structure operates?

There are real consequences to all this stuff. When we get called as counsel for municipalities, we give them the worst-case scenario. You could get sued, you could go bankrupt. This is very serious work that these municipalities are taking on, that these elected officials and other people are taking on. In places where their elected officials aren’t willing to do it, citizen groups are coming together to go override them through initiative processes and home rule charter stuff.

People ask, Where is all this headed? In other words, what’s the point, if a court is just going to come in and overturn the law as being against the doctrines? Well, we hope that courts won’t. We’ve actually found judges who have ruled in our favor in other cases before. But it’s very important that people understand, these ordinances are not the end point. Just because a judge rules that it’s in violation of these other legal doctrines, that’s not the end of the story. That’s the first step. Because these communities now in Pennsylvania and New Mexico and New Hampshire and Washington state are now stitching themselves together to talk about what state constitutional change looks like. And eventually, 10 years, 20 years down the road, these states are going to come together through their municipalities to make federal constitutional change. It all comes down to what our theory of social change is. Can we be obedient folks petitioning our legislatures to do the right thing for us, or is it time to take that shit into our own control and do it ourselves, no matter what the cost?

One hundred fifty communities across the U.S. have passed those ordinances now. In addition to that, we’ve been working on something called “the rights of nature.” One of the components of those ordinances, they contain rights of nature clauses which recognize the rights of ecosystem and natural communities to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve. Two dozen communities in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, New Mexico, other places have adopted these ordinances, which refuse to recognize that nature is property under the law. The controversial statement that we sometimes make is that there’s never been an environmental movement in the U.S. And we say that there’s never been an environmental movement in the U.S. because movements transform things that were treated as things under the law into being rights-bearing persons. The abolitionists were about a movement to her transform slaves and African Americans from being property into being persons. The suffragists were about transforming women from being property of their husband or their brother into being persons. That’s what movements do.

We’ve had an environmental movement that’s been focused on treating nature as property to be regulated. Under our system of law, if you have a 10-acre deed to a parcel of land, it carries with it the right to destroy the ecosystems on that parcel of land. That’s the system of law that we have. These communities are beginning to adopt laws that refuse to recognize that nature and ecosystems are property under the law, and that actually allow residents to step into the shoes of a river or a mountain to bring an action as a plaintiff to protect those rights of ecosystems within those communities.

The work in the U.S. in 2001 to 2006 was carried down to Ecuador, which was beginning to work on a new national constitution in the country. They found out about the work of Wells Township and they found out about the work of Tamaqua Borough and they found out about the work of these small communities that were actually passing these laws, and they asked us to come down to help them write a new national constitution. The committee of delegates working on a fundamental rights section of that constitution, brought us in to help them fashion the law, because they wanted to become the first country in the world to transform from a regulatory, property-based system of environmental protection to a rights-based system of environmental protection. They took the rights from the U.S. communities, and they actually wrote it into their national constitution, which was ratified overwhelmingly in 2008, making Ecuador the first country to do that. We’ve been training judges in the Galapagos to deal with “rights of nature” cases that are coming in the door. The group that we work with in Ecuador has set up a 1-800 number for people to call to ask an ombudsman to begin representing “rights of nature” cases. All of that stuff has been happening.

We just got the first enforcement decisions. I just want to share them with you before we wrap up here. One was brought by a group of residents using the constitutional provisions on behalf of the Vilcabamba River, located in the province of Loja in Ecuador. The local government there was actually building a road project that was altering the course of the river by dumping that road refuse into the river. The residents there brought a case in which the plaintiff was the Vilcabamba River. They brought it in to the local court, and the local court agreed with them, in the first ruling ever in the globe on behalf of an ecosystem as a plaintiff, and then awarding injunctive relief and damages to repair and restore the ecosystem itself.

We believe that the “rights of nature” stuff is the next horizon for environmental law. It’s actually about building a real environmental movement that makes it a rights- based movement rather than just something that raises consciousness or something that attempts to regulate around the edges. We think that’s the next step. We’ve been in touch with Nepal. We just made a visit there. They’re talking about putting the rights of nature into their national constitution. The Maldive Islands, where we had a conversation last year about building in a right to climate. In other words, a right to climate that was shared by ecosystems as well as people within the Maldives that could then be used to sue polluters around the globe, including countries, to actually begin to confront the damage that’s being caused to the Maldives and other low-lying island nations on global warming. But it’s all pinned to that rights stuff, because we think it’s a rights- based movement that’s beginning to arise.

I just wanted to say, with no offense to anyone that it’s really time to take our collective heads out of our collective asses. And people all the time say, Surely you’re not saying to us we need to stop doing the front- line work that we’re doing. Surely you’re not saying to us that we’ve got to stop appealing permits and doing all that kind of stuff. I have a mixed response to that now. I used to have something different. But the first one is that there are a limited amount of monetary resources circulating out to nonprofit organizations and other groups doing environmental work. Those resources have to shift, because to build this new system of law, to give birth to this new collective consciousness, it takes money. And the funders have to stop giving money to the regulatory stuff. I think that’s about as blunt as I’ve ever said it. They have to stop. Those are sponges that are taking up money. And we have to have the elbow space to actually build new room for this stuff to happen.

As for the front-line activists, the fact is, things would be even worse now without the courageous work of people that have gone before us to fight those front-line battles. But there has to be a time when we re-examine whether those battles have been successful. We have to regird into a different position, and we need to begin to frame the different fight which is now upon us, which is the collapse of our entire planetary ecosystems.

So here’s Derrick Jensen again. I’d like to return to this hope thing. When I say things are hopeless and we’re fucked and all those things, this is what Derrick Jensen has to say in his book, and I think the words are right on target. They asked Derrick,

If things are hopeless, why do you do anything at all?

And he said,

Because I’m in love—with salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy stream bottoms, with slender salamanders crawling through the duff. And if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don’t determine whether or not you make the effort. You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do whatever it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love.

And he goes on, last paragraph,

A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact, it made you more effective because you ceased relying on someone or something to solve your problems. You ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, Valiant Tree Sitters, Brave Salmon, or even the Earth itself, and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself. I think there’s that new world waiting to be born.

A final quote from Jensen, because I think it hits home.

If we wish to stop the atrocities, we need merely to step away from the isolation. There is a whole world waiting for us, ready to welcome us home.

Thank you.

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977

Posted in Big picture, Climate crisis, Corporate bonding and domination, Economic injustice, Fossil besmirchment, The American Dream | Leave a comment

Kicking people when they’re down

Barbara Ehrenreich
Lecture, then interview by David Barsamian
(This event was presented by the Lannan Foundation.)
Santa Fe, New Mexico
13 March 2013

The rise in New York’s poverty rate as a result of the ongoing recession has pushed nearly half of the city’s population into the ranks of the poor or near-poor. Ironically, the nation’s largest city is run by a multi-billionaire. Almost on the same day, another report came out saying “Hedge Fund Titans Get Lavish Paydays Stretching to Ten Figures.” People are immiserated and dumped into the streets because of decisions made downtown in the suites. Do we lend a helping hand to the poor? Barely. Let them eat op-eds about values and the virtues of hard work. There’s billions to fund the latest F-whatever fighter jet but scant little for people in distress. The pounding the needy are taking is particulary severe because much of the social safety net has been shredded. Can anyone say compassion and caring?

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Barbara Ehrenreich is a social critic, journalist, and activist. She received a PhD in cell biology from Rockefeller University. By the 1970s, she was involved with the nascent women’s health movement and teaching at the State University of New York, Old Westbury. After publishing an article in Ms. magazine, she became a regular columnist there and with Mother Jones. Numerous books followed including such bestsellers as Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, This Land is Their Land, and Bright-Sided. In 2012 she founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a website designed to place the crisis of poverty and economic insecurity at the center of the national political conversation.

You can listen to Barbara Ehrenreich speak for herself here.

I am so glad to be in Santa Fe. For me Santa Fe is something like Mecca, it’s like a very special, holy place. Because of your minimum wage. That’s what brought me here in 2007, six years ago, the minimum wage campaign. And I know there are people here from it who are here tonight.

But I was looking so much forward to coming here because last week I gave a talk at George Mason University in Virginia and, as usual in these situations, a student in the audience stood up in a Q&A and said that she had learned in her economics class that raising the minimum wage would cause widespread unemployment and economic ruin. I hear this every time I speak on a campus. I think that academic economics departments are dedicated to one proposition only, and that is teaching that the economic status quo is exactly fine, and it’s perfect even for the poor. So I said to this young woman,

Will you come with me to Santa Fe next week? Come and see for yourself.

This is the highest minimum wage city of— I think you’re only outdone by San Francisco. I’m not sure. But I think it’s San Francisco, Santa Fe. That’s it. By comparison with my trip here six years ago for that campaign, I am not seeing boarded-up businesses, I am not seeing a city brought to its knees by the raised minimum wage.

Last time I came here—and right to this theatre, in fact—I spoke entirely about my book Nickel and Dimed. I’m going to talk about that a little bit, look back at that, and also talk about things that I have been learning from much more recent research since the economic downturn.

My starting point for a lot of this, I will tell you, sort of the source of a lot of my motivation, is I get really, really upset whenever I hear someone speak disrespectfully about people in poverty, and maybe especially women in poverty. And I have personal reasons for that reaction. But in the 1990s I was hearing a lot of that kind of disrespect, especially from politicians and pundits. There is something wrong with poor people. That was the theory. And in many quarters it still is. Poor people have low IQs. We’ve had Charles Murray to point that out, as well as people of color having lower IQs, he pointed out. They have character defects. They make bad lifestyle decisions. Poor women are promiscuous, they are lazy, they have too many children, they don’t bother to get married, they eat too many Doritos and drink too much Mountain Dew. That has pretty much been the official theory of poverty in America, which is, if people are poor, they have nobody to blame but themselves.

This works its way into policy all the time. For example, the original welfare reform bill, which was in 1996, the bill that ended welfare as we knew it, ended any kind of entitlement of poor single parents to government aid. This bill provided in it originally $100 million for chastity training for low-income women. That’s the theory. So imagine the scene. Bill Clinton signing into law this provision for chastity training—not, unfortunately, for himself.

And that amount went up. The most recent amount, it was up to $400 million for training poor women to make them more marriageable. Some of us ladies aren’t married. It’s because we haven’t tried. We really need the education. Actually, I’ve tried it a number of times.

It seemed me that the problem had nothing to do with lifestyles or personal choices, or overwhelmingly it has nothing to do with those things. I started my own personal crusade for the living wage just by reading my local newspaper, seeing what wages were being offered in the help- wanted ads—and they very cleverly don’t mention them usually—then turn to the apartment rentals section see what the rents are. The math did not look good to me. That was my starting point.

I agonized and complained about it so much that I finally got a magazine editor to say,

Barbara, what you have to do is go out there and try living on these wages yourself.

I had meant somebody should do it. I did not mean myself as a journalist. But journalists need what jobs they can get and what assignments they can get. So I had to leave home, I had to find the cheapest accommodations possible. And I was not trying to find the lowest-wage jobs I could; I was not trying to find minimum-wage jobs. My rule for myself was I had to find the best-paying jobs I could, consistent with not using my actual résumé or educational experience or anything. I could have cheated very easily, though, because I never did see a help-wanted ad for a political essayist. In particular, I never saw a help- wanted ad for a sarcastic feminist political essayist.

The jobs I ended up getting, like waitress and hotel housekeeper. That’s where I fit in in the labor market. That’s what I found. It had been a while since I had worked in any of these kinds of jobs, since I was a teenager. And one of the first things that struck me about being in the low-wage work force—and this has not changed, not at all, since 2000—is the constant suspicion that if you’re willing to work for those wages, you probably have some sort of criminal tendencies. There’s something wrong with you.

First, the drug test. Anybody here ever take a drug test to get a job? Oh. How did you do? We’ll talk about that later. Then there’s the personality test. Most of the questions I thought, being kind of a smart aleck, were pretty easy. Here’s an example. And I wrote this one down, so it’s word for word. You get this in your application process,

In the last year I have stolen [check dollar amount below] worth of goods from my employers.

You see that and you really want to be a smart aleck and say,

Do you have a calculator I could use?

Then there was this question, which pops up on many companies’ tests for their low-wage workers,

Agree or disagree: It is easier to work when you’re a little bit high.

You don’t want to overthink that one. It would be so easy to get philosophical there, but don’t do it. That’s the preparation.

Then you enter into a job paying—at the time I was doing this, I averaged $7 an hour. These were hard jobs, all the jobs I had. They were physically hard jobs. And I would have to say that’s one argument for doing this sort of journalism, which is called immersion journalism, where you actually put your body into it. That is that if you ask people, “Is your job physically hard?” they will say “Yeah,” but most people don’t complain a lot. It was another thing to do it myself. I’m strong, I’m fit, but there were many jobs where after a shift my legs would feel like rubber. I had to find that out.

A more important thing I picked up about how hard these jobs were is something that was completely surprising to me. I’m educated, I’ve written a lot of books. These jobs were mentally challenging. Every one of them I had a hard time learning. It’s a humbling kind of discovery.

I’ll just mention one example of that, which was at Wal-Mart. I was assigned to ladies’ wear. I thought, Oh, great, I’ll be giving fashion advice to the women of Minnesota. No. The main thing was picking up garments from the floor or things that had been hidden— for some mysterious reason that I don’t know what consumers are thinking—in the wrong department. Somebody has to find everything and put it in its exact right place. In other words, I had to memorize the exact location of hundreds of different items, which would then be rotated every few days for no other purpose than to convince me I have Alzheimer’s disease. Why Wal-Mart wanted to do that I don’t know, but that was the plan. A very important lesson for me here. I never used the word unskilled to describe anybody’s job. Every person’s job takes intelligence and skill and concentration and deserves our complete respect.

Some of these jobs were also a lot harder than they needed to be because of absurd management rules, like no talking to your fellow employees. You can guess why that is. No drinking water, even in a sweaty job. And then there’s a whole bathroom break situation. In some of those jobs the bathroom breaks were so rare I looked back on the drug test with nostalgia. They don’t tell you that could be the last time. There is an academic book that’s been written about bathroom breaks in the U.S. work force. The title tells it all. It’s called Void Where Prohibited.

Another interesting thing. In all these jobs they suspect you of stealing. Your purse could be searched at any point, because you might be stealing, I don’t know, ketchup packets from the restaurant or something. However, in most of these jobs it’s management that’s stealing. Wage theft is a huge problem in America. I could see it going on, but I didn’t even have a term for it when I was doing these jobs. One form it can take is, Wal-Mart just changes the computers so it doesn’t look like you’ve worked so many hours. Another thing is that they can tell you to come in a half an hour before the clock starts ticking for your pay and you start working. And they’re not paying you for that. To me this is really something, the amount of this. I pressed the experts on this to come up with an estimate of the amount that is stolen from low- wage workers in America in the form of wage theft. The number they came up with for me was $106 billion a year. One hundred six billion is on the order of magnitude of some of our larger social programs—bigger, I think, than Unemployment Insurance.

I had a lot of trouble making ends meet. I had no idea how out of whack wages and rents were going to be. Obviously, I was looking at the cheapest places to stay, which included trailer parks and, very often, these places called residential motels, which you can get into without one month’s rent deposit. You pay by the week. I learned a very important thing in these living situations: It’s expensive to be poor. If you don’t have that one month’s rent and security deposit up front, which could be more than $1,000, a lot of capital, then you’re stuck with outrageous weekly payments. In this one residential motel I ended up at it was $250 a week to stay in an absolute dump that smelled like rodent droppings. And it had no fridge or microwave, meaning that everything I bought to eat had to come from a convenience store, and occasionally, as a treat, fast food. I’m not complaining about the cuisine. It’s just right away that’s a lot more expensive than being able to go to a grocery store.

With the rent, the expenses, I ultimately realized, this is not possible. I would have to, I don’t know, find a lot of roommates or something. And I had advantages, like not having children with me. I tried to get my children to come with me, but… How will you do this sort of thing? Suppose I was a single parent with one child trying to do the same thing. You can do the math here. In New Mexico the minimum wage for the state is $7.50 an hour, which is ahead of the federal amount. But a living wage calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for this state for one adult and one child is $17.78 an hour. Way off. In Santa Fe, due to a heroic, exemplary struggle, you have a minimum wage that begins to somewhat more closely approach what people might need to live on, $10.50 an hour. But sad news here. A living wage for Santa Fe, according to MIT, would be $19.82 an hour. That’s for a bare-bones existence. There’s no Internet in there, there’s no movies, there’s no vacations.

Sometimes affluent people say to me,

Why don’t these people just learn how to manage their finances a little bit better?

There’s a growing movement to provide financial literacy training for poor people. What bothers me so much about this is that if you’re trying to live on his $7, $8, $9 an hour, there’s only one financial plan for you, and it’s called Just Say No. Don’t buy it, don’t eat it, don’t drink it, don’t smoke it, don’t fix it if it breaks, don’t go to a doctor in the first place. I just found out recently, due to some recent research who is funding financial literacy education in our public schools. The banks. Wells Fargo, Capital One. The same banks that brought us the mortgage crisis in the middle of the ‘00s. The banks that have depended on the gullibility and ignorance and trust of consumers all along.

We have a lot of full-time workers in this country who don’t make enough to live on, if you’re talking about living indoors, that is, homeless people who are full-time workers. I met them. I’m sure you know some of them. Even more disturbing to me in some way, hungry workers. That’s sort of an image of one in the early ‘00s before the economic downturn. What I described in the book Nickel and Dimed, in case any of you have been forced to read it in school or something, is out of date, because those were the good old days. Everything you read in there you have to correct and say, Ah, what would this be like today, when it’s so much harder to find these jobs and when in many ways wages and conditions have deteriorated?

What happened in the last four years or so of downturn? The number of people in poverty grew to 15.5% of Americans. A large part of this increase—I can’t tell you how much, I wish I knew—is not people who are poor necessarily in the long term or people whose parents were also poor, but people who have higher educations, who have degrees, people who were lawyers, IT experts, college graduates of all kinds. These are not the kinds of people that that stereotype I talked about at the beginning can apply to. These are not the people who have the bad lifestyles, so-called. They got poor because they didn’t have money. In fact, that’s become a sort of a major kind of theoretical breakthrough of mine: The cause of poverty may not be character failings, may not even be lack of education, may not be bad habits. The real, real core of poverty is a shortage of money. That’s it. It’s a theoretical breakthrough. I’m trying to push it.

Generally when we talk about doing something about poverty, we talk about things that need to be done: affordable housing, subsidized child care, all those sorts of things. We talk about budget programs. This afternoon I went to a fascinating meeting put together by Homewise, the housing organization in Santa Fe, to talk about just these kinds of things. How do we build programs and make them work effectively to help people move up? The sad truth in this country now, though, is instead of helping the down and out, we have a society that seems to persecute the poor, so that if you start sliding downhill, you’re likely to accelerate all the way into destitution, or even further. There’s another step, and that’s incarceration. This is something that has accelerated and increased since the middle of the ‘00s. I’ll tell you why I think that is, this sort of persecution of the poor.

Both government and corporations play a role in this. First of all, a number of employers openly discriminate against hiring unemployed people. It’s funny to say that. They don’t want to hire unemployed people. They want to hire people who already have jobs. Why is that? Because the same stereotypes that apply to the poor apply to the unemployed. They must be losers, so don’t hire them. In fact, there are states now that have been trying to pass laws so that you can’t have help-wanted ads that say, for example,

No unemployed candidates will be considered at all.

More and more employers—and I’ve seen numbers that go up to 70%—now do a credit check on people who apply for a job. It’s nothing to do with your ability to perform the job. Right there the people who most desperately need employment are weeded out. And if you’ve been relying on credit cards to get through these things, the poor face higher interest rates. They don’t get regular credit cards, they get subprime credit cards. I won’t even talk about payday lenders, because they’re such astronomical amounts of interest. And if you think you can get rid of any of these bills by filing for bankruptcy, I was shocked to find that the average cost of filing for bankruptcy in America is $2,000. Where are you going to get the $2,000 just to become bankrupt? Do we need a special program for that? Bankruptcy assistance?

Here’s the most sinister thing to me, though. This is research I’ve done and reporting I’ve done, but also because I work now with a group called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which I am proud to say I launched. We get starving journalists, who are pretty easy to find, to do really good research on these sorts of issues. The most sinister thing, it seems to me, is the ways in which government contributes its own harassment of the poor.

Ten million people are charged each year in this country with misdemeanors. Many of these are very minor misdemeanors—I’ll mention some of them—but they still lead to fines and even jail time. Seventy-five percent of the people charged with misdemeanors—this is kind of interesting—are indigent, and the average fine for a misdemeanor is in the range of $200 to $500. Let me give you some examples of what the things are that you can do. You’re already poor, right, you’ve got a low-wage job. In New York it is illegal to put your feet up on a subway seat that is empty. The whole subway car can be empty, it can be 3:00 in the morning. You’re returning from your dishwashing job. You put your feet up, and a cop comes in. You are not warned, you are not reprimanded, you do not receive a citation. You are arrested. You’re right then taken off the subway train into a police station. Next thing is you’re going to be charged, you’re going to have court costs. Because now the defendant is charged with all the court costs, or increasingly with the court costs.

In Washington, D.C., you can be arrested, not just warned or given a citation, for driving with an expired license. So you can see how this grows. The example I like to give is, if you’re driving with a broken headlight, it costs $150, maybe, to get a new one put in. You don’t have $150. You’ve got to get to work or from work or whatever. You get stopped for that. You get fined $200. If you had that money, you would have fixed the headlight, right? So you can’t pay that. Then the court is going to issue a summons at some point, because you haven’t paid that kind of cost. The summons is going to be turned over to a collection agent, which may not bother even getting your correct address. Most people who are issued summonses don’t show up and say they never got the summons. That’s now called “failure to appear.” Now you’re in real trouble. There’s a warrant out for your arrest, and the likelihood is you have no idea about that.

Another thing that is in the public-sector realm is that a growing number of cities have taken to ticketing and sometimes handcuffing children found on the streets during school hours. In Los Angeles the fine for truancy is $250. In Dallas it can be as high as $500. Crushing amounts for people who don’t have much money. In New Mexico, when there is a second conviction for a child’s truancy, a parent may face a fine of not more than $500 or imprisonment for up to six months. We want children to go to school, right? But in L.A. some community groups studied the situation because actually people were getting afraid to send their children to school in case they were a little bit late and got caught in the street and these fines started piling up on the family. So the community organizations found out that 80% of the so-called truants were simply late for school because a city bus was too full and whizzed right by their school-bus stop so they couldn’t get to school on time. I know sometimes it sounds good, Let’s really get those kids in school, let’s make the parents responsible. This has become an additional way of criminalizing the poor. It is not the kids in Beverly Hills whose families are getting tickets for this.

This sort of police harassment has increased since the recession started, as far as anybody can tell me, because it looks like it’s a way for municipalities and counties to raise their revenues. They’re really pressed for revenues, so they said, Let’s have more infractions, let’s have higher fines, let’s charge our court costs. What happens if you don’t pay a fine? Well, you may go to jail. There’s a case I found pretty fascinating about a South Carolina woman who was trying to make a living post losing her business in the recession by selling plasma, her own blood, and also scrap metal. She was charged in January 2012 with having a “messy” yard. Who knew that was a crime? Fined $480. Of course she didn’t have $480. So she was jailed for six days, until there was a community protest to get her out.

At least in this case she was not charged room and board for her jail time. I really want to know more about this. I have no national numbers. I just know it’s increasingly frequent to be charged room and board for your jail time just as like for your court costs. I want the money to do the kind of investigative work—not me, I’ll get other people, smarter people to do it—to find out, just how frequent is that now? Why are people in jail in the first place, usually? You might say they’ve done something wrong. But also because they are too poor to have private representation in court or anything else. They’re poor. So you jail them. And they come out and you say,

That will be $60 a day for your stay here.

It’s very easy to get in deep trouble. The story that I find most amazing comes from Michigan in ‘09. It’s of a woman—I should mention, this is actually a white woman, if it sounds like this is all racial profiling. It is not always. A homeless woman, a full-time worker, was arrested as a homeless person. When they got her, they found she had an even worse thing on her record than being homeless, and that is, her 16-year-old son was in jail and she was not keeping up with his room-and-board charges. So she was jailed because of that. So you have two family members caught in this situation. Fortunately, the ACLU intervened in her case.

One of the things that’s proliferated since the economic downturn is laws that forbid, outlaw essentially, homelessness. A good example, a particularly evil one, would be from Sarasota, Florida, which passed an ordinance that it is illegal there to be asleep outdoors and

when awakened, state that he or she has no other place to live.

In other words, if you’re sleeping in the park and a police officer comes over and shakes you awake and you say,

Oh, you know, I just didn’t feel like staying in my penthouse condo tonight, I really needed a change,

fine, that’s legal. But if you’re awakened and you say,

I’ve got nowhere to go,

that is a crime. Think about that. There are no laws, of course, that require cities to provide food, shelter, or restrooms for their indigent citizens. Restrooms, a big issue. Public urination is a crime almost everywhere. But is anyone going to help you to do it unpublicly if you don’t have the money or the skin color or whatever it takes to walk into a restaurant and just use the facilities?

I think the worst part of this is that in some cities, such as Orlando, it is even illegal to help the poor. There are laws forbidding the sharing of food with indigent people in public places. There’s a great group, Food Not Bombs—you might have heard of them—that like to get in those parks and serve vegan food to homeless people. And I don’t hold the vegan part against them. That’s great. Very sweet, nice, middle-class people have spent time in jail for that crime. As far as I’m concerned, that is like outlawing Christianity or outlawing ethics or something.

And how do they define indigent? I don’t know the definition exactly in Orlando, but Las Vegas had a great definition of indigent. And that was that “an indigent person is someone whom a reasonable person would consider to be eligible for public assistance or able to apply for public assistance.” That could have been me in my everyday work outfit at home as a free-lance writer. But the depth of prejudice there is incomprehensible.

So we have a pattern in this country. We have been defunding services that might help the poor while ramping up various forms of harassment of the poor, including law enforcement. So you starve school budgets, for example, you cut all the fun things, like art and drama and everything, then make truancy illegal. You cut public transportation budgets, then make lateness to school illegal. You shut down public housing and then make it a crime to be homeless. And at a time of high unemployment in most parts of this country, you make it more and more difficult for people who are unemployed who need jobs to find them.

It’s clear, the kinds of things we need to do in this country. We need affordable housing, we need to raise the minimum wage everywhere. In Santa Fe you have to go out there and be the missionaries around the country—that they can raise the minimum wage and have a better, stronger community. You can cut executive compensation at the top of the corporate hierarchy, if you just want to keep things in line. It’s amazing how some of the same economic conservatives who will say,

No, we cannot raise the minimum wage,

when you say,

How about controlling executive compensation?

No, don’t do that either.

Why not? Why not bring that down?

We’ve got health reform, or we should shortly have it, in New Mexico. The question will be whether it is actually implemented so the people can sign up for expanded Medicaid. What about some sick days for this country? Nearly half of America’s private-sector workers have no guaranteed sick days and can face firing for staying home with a sick child.

I could go on and on and on with the things that need to be done. I’ll mention this since there are college students in the audience. This isn’t working, our higher education business. It isn’t working anymore. You have no guarantee of a job when you get out. What you have is a guarantee of a huge debt. An awful lot of poor students are trying to get through college now while working full- time, which is not possible. No one should have to go through this. No one should graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. In fact, I’m for an immediate debt jubilee for all those student loans.

I’m not pushing a positive agenda here. We all know what it is. My sort of short-term demand is much more modest. Could we just stop the meanness? Could we stop the relentless persecution of people who are already having hard time? Could we stop the wage theft by employers? Could we stop treating low-wage workers as criminals? Give them some rights in the workplace so they can even organize into unions, if they want to. Stop penalizing people for their credit scores. Since when is a credit score a measure of a person’s worth, which is how we act about that today? Could we stop harassing the homeless and the indigent. In a sense, to be homeless, to be indigent in America, you have entered the ranks of a population very little different from undocumented workers. It’s like you’re not a citizen anymore. It’s like you have no rights at all here. In other words, could we stop kicking people when they’re down? That’s my program. Not my whole one, but…

I don’t think this is about whether you’re a liberal or a conservative or what your religious orientation is or anything. I think these are moral issues. How we treat the people who are in need is a moral issue. I want to quote someone who is here tonight. She is one of the people who was one of the original activists behind raising the minimum wage in Santa Fe. I remember reading her quoted in The New York Times in 2006. This really meant a lot to me. She said,

What really got the other side

— and she’s talking about the opponents of raising the minimum wage—

was when we said, “It’s just immoral to pay people $5.15 on hour. They can’t live on that.”

She said,

When we said that, it made some of these business people furious. So we kept saying it over and over again.

Forget the so-called economic argument. This is a moral argument. When I speak to religious audiences, and I sometimes do, if you’re looking for some kind of biblical backup, you’re not going to find a lot on abortion in the Bible, you’re not going to find anything on gay marriage in the Bible, you’re not going to find a word about stem cell research in the Bible. But you will find 3,000 references to the moral claim that people who are hurting, chiefly because of poverty, have on the rest of us. I think it is time to start acting on that moral imperative and maybe even get to the point where we move on from stop kicking people when they’re down to the point where we’re actually constantly reaching out a hand.

Thank you.


It’s hard to be funny and discuss these issues in the same breath, but you remind me of Howard Zinn, who combined a great sense of humor while talking about very serious matters. I’d like you to talk about what’s happened to the Democratic Party over the decades in relation to issues of class and poverty. And I’m reminded of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union address on economic justice, he had a whole list of things that he said that America must do and guarantee; for example, “the right to a useful and remunerative job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food clothing, and recreation; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and to enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; the right to a good education.” He said all of these rights spell security.

I really cannot comment a lot on our elected officials or our Democratic Party. I would just point out that it was good to hear Obama talking recently about raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour until you realize that when he was running for reelection he was saying $9.50. If he keeps going down at that the rate we’ll be—the national is, what, 7.25 an hour?

But still, let’s say Congress passes it. At $9 or 9.50, if you are working full-time, you are in poverty.

No question about that.

You have a background with democratic socialists, and you kind of didn’t answer my question on the Democratic Party, where the plight of the poor was once a concern.

I don’t look at it so much politically. It’s in the early 1960s this culture of poverty idea took hold, which is what I was talking about, is terrible stereotypes about the poor, that there’s something wrong with them that has to be fixed, not that there’s something wrong with wages, that there’s a lack of housing, and so on. That’s what I think has to be turned around. There are obvious things everybody is probably thinking of right now, like campaign finance, the obvious dependence of elected officials on great wealth, which I don’t know the solution to unless we prevent all advertising for candidates, which might not be a bad idea.

How has the decline in the union movement affected wages and poverty?

It’s a disaster. The unions have been pushing for raising the minimum wage. That’s a good thing. I fault them for spending the last five or so years without making a huge effort to organize the unemployed. So many people have lost their jobs in this country, in waves. I’ve met with mill workers in Maine and foundry workers in Indiana. When you lose your job, you lose your union membership. No. That’s exactly where the union should be in fighting for you harder than ever. I am quite critical of our major unions.

And I’ll say something which may get me in a lot of trouble back in D.C., but I think they have to sell off their real estate. Anyone who has visited Washington, D.C., and has seen the beautiful buildings that the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO, etc., even the SEIU occupy, I think all that has to go. It’s probably worth hundreds of millions, billions of dollars. All that has to be turned into grass-roots organizing. That’s the only thing to do with that.

Union membership is now at an almost 100-year low. And there have been concerted attacks, well documented in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, to take away collective bargaining. Talk about their endorsement of Keystone XL, the pipeline project that would bring tar-sands oil to the Guld Coast.

They didn’t come right out and endorse the Keystone pipeline. They just said, There’s a lot of good stuff about pipelines, right? I found very shocking about that in the statement from the AFL-CIO that at the same time they’re saying we the unions have to be sort of a nexus of democratic forces in this country—and they included civil rights, women, etc.—they suddenly dropped the environmental movement? What was with that? I have to say, I spent a lot of time back in union organizing drives, walking picket lines. And right now I always try to remind workers, they have the option of forming their own associations. You do not have to be part of any sort of national or international labor union to be organized. Like the American Airlines flight attendants. They’re not part of the AFL-CIO. They have their own association. The clerical workers at the University of California, at least in Berkeley, have their own association. That’s another way we have to think of that people can go.

The economist Richard Wolff on this stage talked about the systemic and structural problems of capitalism that need to be addressed rather than this or that particular problem. What do you think about that?

I tend to think smaller in my actual work. I agree with Richard Wolff, obviously. But we have to break things down into a size we can deal with. In Santa Fe six, seven years ago, when the living wage movement started, they could have said, “We have to smash capitalism. That’s what’s wrong here, some people getting rich off of other people.” That would be true at some level. But they also carved out an attack. If you want to call that reformism, then we have a fight, David. And I was hoping we would have a fight.

New Mexico is a state with a large number of people in poverty. Many of them are Native Americans. Four of the five poorest counties in the U.S. are on Indian land where there’s a tremendous amount of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, crime.

Did I mention the Economic Hardship Reporting Project?

You did.

This is my project. We’re trying to get starving journalists to write about economic hardship. We had a very good piece a few months ago, which we got out in a variety of media about what’s happening on Native American reservations in North Dakota. That’s the big oil-boom state. The frackers come in and everybody gets a job. However, at the same time, the place they’re in becomes unlivable because of giant trucks going around, there’s actually no housing. Our reporter lived in a rental car in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Everything just went to hell. That sort of shows another side. You can have economic development, so-called, that is also social collapse.

I was reminded of a Yeats couplet when you were talking about meanness and kind of the hardening of the emotional arteries in the body politic. He said, “We had fed the heart on fantasies, The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” How do we stop that meanness?

It’s not meanness in us each individually. I think very few of us have an impulse, when we see a panhandler, to hit the person or call the police. But it becomes systematic. When your municipality is so starved for finances that they think that’s actually a good way to make money, by laying fines and fees on top of the poorest people, then it becomes organized. And then we can do something. A lot of that is within reach of city ordinances, of people. You want children handcuffed on the streets for being late to school? You’ve got a choice. You can vote on that, you can go to city council on that. But it means looking at all those places where the gears are turning in that kind of direction and intervening.

I’m sure glad that that truancy thing wasn’t in force when I was going to junior high school and high school, because I was playing hooky most of the time, and my immigrant parents would have probably landed in debtor’s prison, if it had existed at that time.

Debtor’s prison does now exist.

De facto.

Or de jure, whatever. I tried to sketch out the way that can happen. If you miss a court summons, you have debt. And it could be a private-sector debt. It could be that you didn’t pay your rent and your landlord decides to take you to court over that. You don’t show up because you don’t get the summons or you had to work at that time or you have no vehicle or whatever, then you are a criminal.

In recent weeks the stock market has hit record highs, but people aren’t doing as well as Wall Street. One of the characteristics of the ongoing great recession is long- term, chronic unemployment. That’s defined by the Labor Department as 27 weeks or more of people being out of work. It turns out that many of them are older. And it’s hard for them to find a job.

I’m thinking now of the white-collar, professional, managerial job market. When I investigated for my book Bait and Switch—that was really hard. You think Nickel and Dimed was hard? This was really hard. Because all the advice is, on your résumé include no experience that goes back more than 10 years, because that will give your age away. There are no jobs after a certain age. I think one of the scariest times of life for people, no matter how educated or successful they might have been at some point, is when you become too old to be employable again. Say you’re 52 and you want to go back into practicing your white-collar profession, but you’re too young to qualify for Social Security or Medicare. That’s a very scary little period in there, when you become unemployable and you don’t qualify for those limited benefits.

What does it say about the economic system when there’s obviously so much work to be done, so much infrastructure that needs to be built and repaired and restored on one side, and on the other side you have all of these people out of work that are looking for work but the system can’t bring them together?

You’re indicting capitalism again. Is there any shortage of things to do in this country? And it’s not just physical infrastructure. It’s also what you could call human or social infrastructure. The baby boomers more and more are going to need home health care aides, just to give you one example. We’re not all going to be in nursing homes. We’re going to need that kind of service. Right now home health care aides are treated terribly: they’re paid near the minimum wage everywhere. They have no more rights than the average domestic worker. We’re not putting the need together with the ability to do something about that. We have so many children who need tutoring, they need help with school, they need smaller classrooms, and then we have all these unemployed teachers. An economy like that has to be changed.

You write that there was no decision to become a writer; “that was something I just started doing.” You have a background in science, a Ph.D. in cell biology. How did you become a writer?

I never thought about it as a profession. When I decided to become “socially relevant”—that was the old term—and went to work with a little group of young activists around 1970 on improving health care for low-income people in New York City, I actually had no thought of any kind of career. I got my Ph.D. in cell biology. I threw that over, or just got tired of the bench. And then in my first little movement job, I found myself doing a lot of writing. And I liked it, and I liked doing investigations, too, because that seemed to come straight from science.

And in Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch you foreground the first-person narrative. You’re the actor there interacting in these different situations. Very different from rather distant political analysis and essays.

It was strange, very strange.

You’ve said that something that prepared you for writing was the amount of reading that you used to do.

Sometimes students ask me, “How can I become a writer?” And not just students. Writing seems very glamorous. It is glamorous. It’s wonderful. There’s just no pay. I’ll say back to a young person, “What do you read?” “I don’t really read very much.” I’m sorry, that’s the ticket. The first step is to learn the language, how the language is used. Learn the beauty in the language, learn the language as a tool. For me that was not an effort. I love to read. You can’t stop me. I’ve actually had people tell me that Nickel and Dimed was the first book they’ve finished. I don’t know how to feel about that. On the one hand, I’m really proud; on the other hand, terrible, just terrible.

A friend told me Nickel and Dimed was the most depressing book she could never put down.

It’s not depressing.

One thing that characterizes your writing is fluency and terseness. There’s much in little. There’s not this endless verbosity and run-on sentences that begin in Tampa and end in Tucson. Did your science background give you that sense of precision?

I wouldn’t be surprised. A great way to learn to write: Write some science. Anybody ever done that kind of writing? All passive voice. But as a discipline, it’s good, because you just absolutely have to focus on what you’re trying to say. What I’ve said when I’ve taught essay writing classes is, Don’t worry about saying things in lovely ways, what adjectives and adverbs you’re going to use. The first thing is to have something to say. That’s where the struggle is. I don’t find writing sentences down too difficult, probably from those years and years of reading. But the struggle, the agony, the waking up in the middle of the night, thinking, What exactly do I have to say, what needs to be said that hasn’t been said, and how can I make that clear?

And you invest it with passion and energy.

Can’t help that. It’s just infects everything.

It may be growing up in Butte, Montana, which you say was still a “bustling, brawling, blue-collar mining town.” Your father was a miner, other men in your family were either miners or railroad workers. And today, Butte, you note, is, sadly,” an underpopulated, woefully polluted EPA Superfund site thanks to the mining companies.”

It’s a story like so many others. The mining companies come in or the lumber companies or whatever it is, and they make their money and they go off. When the Anaconda company left Butte, Montana, to go get their copper from Chile, they didn’t bother pumping out the mines. They let the mines flood. They let all the toxic chemical wastes flood the city. Neighborhoods are buried under water that is so toxic that birds have been seen accidentally going into it and disappearing.

What was your take on the Occupy movement?

I loved it. Anybody here from Occupy Santa Fe? Congratulations. Thank you. I think actually that was a turning point in which we began to understand, a lot of us, that criminalization of poverty, that it is illegal to be homeless, that it is illegal to do things outdoors in public that biologically you have to do and there is no provision for. It was a turning point for me. I remember going to Zuccotti Park in New York City to visit. I’m too old to stay overnight. That’s my excuse, anyway. Zuccotti Park is pretty small. So I go there and I’m enjoying it and so much is going on. And then I started thinking, Where do you pee? There was one Starbucks about three blocks away which would let people use their bathrooms, and there was like a block-long line outside for that. There are no public facilities. A lot of things I think were brought home to a lot of us who are not homeless through the Occupy encampments. And I think in that way it was sort of a brilliant tactic, although it’s not a tactic that was easy to continue.

Occupy to some extent did inject the 1% versus 99%, and income inequality and wealth inequality into the political discourse. But except for a recent revival after the superstorm Sandy hit the New York-New Jersey area, where Occupy people helped people in distress, get them out of their homes and feed them, the movement pretty much seems to have dissipated.

I don’t think it’s as visible. But one of the things that Occupy people are working on, maybe also here in Santa Fe, but I think nationally—which I mentioned in my talk is abolishing debt. And I’m not talking about for the big banks. We have to look at this trillion dollars now in student loan debt. I don’t know what the number is on medical debt, but medical debt, as Elizabeth Warren pointed out before she became a senator, is the number one cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. I think that the Occupy demand is worth pushing for: Abolish these debts and let people live.

There was the Occupy slogan, “We got sold out, they got bailed out.” It kind of encapsulated the politics of the era. You’ve said that we’ve got to move the discussion from what can we do for the poor to what do we have to stop doing to the poor? Can you talk more about that?

Well, I think the liberal idea is a good one, how do we put these things together—housing and good jobs and education—and make all that work for people. I’m completely down with that. But at the same time, we have to not look away from the huge levels of incarceration in this country, the insanity, for example, of the war on drugs, which has resulted in the incarceration of so many African American men, and these other forms of the criminalization of poverty that are going on.

Michelle Alexander, again, from this stage spoke eloquently about that.

Her book, The New Jim Crow, is great.

What’s coming up for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project?

We have some very hot things in the works. Right now, today, go to and you will see something we got Susan Faludi, the well-known feminist, to write about Sheryl Sandberg’s intervention in feminism. Sheryl Sandberg, the Yahoo executive who has written a book called Lean In about how women can get ahead in the corporate hierarchy. Unfortunately, that book came out at the same time as the female CEO of Yahoo stopped the possibility of working from home—very, very important for parents of both sexes, but particularly women—while she built her own nursery next to her office at the Yahoo building. I’m not really interested in women making it up the corporate ladder if they don’t have concern for their women employees.

Your views on women in combat?

Fine. I’ve been saying this for a long time. My favorite of my own books is called Blood Rites.

It’s a terrific book.

Nobody ever mentions it because it’s scholarly, my own form of scholarly. The point is that ever since the introduction of action-at-a-distance weapons, like bows and arrows, upper-body strength has not been the determining thing in ability to the fight. That’s nonsense. The other thing is, when you’re using action-at-a-distance weapons—and our most common one for the past few hundred years has been guns—you don’t want to be in some kind of testosterone rage when you’re taking aim. Rage and the total sort of testosterone story of war—silly. Unless you’re fighting hand to hand in wrestling or something.

And any guy here who questions that and thinks that women aren’t capable of being really aggressive, I’ll meet you outside.

I’m not going to top that. So that’s a perfect place to stop. Thank you Barbara.

(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)

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