David Barsamian is the founder of Alternative Radio, a weekly un-embedded public affairs radio program that can be heard on community radio stations across North America. Some of his books include Imperial Ambitions with Noam Chomsky, Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire, and The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy. This interview was taken on a sunny morning in October of 2005 in Montreal.
KT: I read that you said “When the US marches to war, the media march with it”. Could explain broadly how media is often in service of empire?
DB: Well particularly in the United States where five corporations basically control what most Americans see, hear, and read, these corporations have very close economic, political, and I dare say emotional ties with power. They identify with the state, and they subordinate their cameras and their microphones to the interest of the state. Particularly in time of war where there is much jingoistic hysteria, flag waving, and nationalist fervour; the media, much of the media, not all, much of the media see themselves as being instruments of American destiny, whatever that might mean, or American power. We saw that very clearly with Iraq and Afghanistan, but also historically, the Vietnam War, the attacks on Laos and Cambodia, these went unchallenged for years. The media internalized the basic assumptions that are generated by the state, that such and such country is a threat to the United States, that becomes the basis of discussion, and then the dialogue, it is more of a monologue then a dialogue, then occurs between the pundits, between the experts, from these golden rolodexes of intellectuals and favoured thinkers, such as Michael Ignatieff of Canada, David Frum, and others. [The discussion is about] How to implement the policy, so should the US attack Iraq with 200,000 troops or 150,000 troops? Should it invade from Turkey and Kuwait, or just from Kuwait? Should there be a bombing campaign initially, or a land campaign? This is the discourse, so you see how corrupt the situation is in the United States, the media do not challenge the basic assumptions, no one says â€œwhat right does the United States have in invading any country under international law, its illegalâ€. I will give you an example, the New York Times is considered to be a liberal newspaper, it is all the news that is fit to print, it is kind of the US Global and Mail, the national serious newspaper, it not for common people, it is for the managers and the owners, and the political and cultural elite. From September 11, 2001 until the attack on Iraq in March 2003, the New York Times had 70 editorials on Iraq, in not one of those editorials did they mention the United Nations Charter, or the Nuremberg Tribunals, or the Geneva Conventions. All of which, particularly the United Nations Charter, specifically state that the planning and waging of aggressive war, that is a first strike on a country that is not threatening you, is the supreme international war crime. Now, why didn’t they write that, why didn’t they inform their readers, maybe they didn’t know? That’s not plausible, of course they knew, it was deliberately left out so that information would not become part of the political discourse.
KT: Do you see this as something [that happened] in previous empires, that media would also be marching with [empire]?
DB: Well, the history of media as we know it is not that old, we can go back to the birth of propaganda which actually occurs in the World War I period, where the British and Americans launched a sophisticated campaign to demonize the Germans. In the case of the United States, an actual propaganda agency was created by the Woodrow Wilson administration, someone who is considered a liberal in US history. This was the birth of, literally, modern propaganda. Such luminaries as Walter Lippman and Edward Bernays were members of this what was called the Creel Commission, it was designed to whip up support for US entry into World War I. After World War I, in the mid-1920’s when Hitler wrote his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), he pointed out to the fact that Germany actually lost the propaganda war, they held their own militarily, but on the level of propaganda, they were completely overwhelmed and outsmarted by the British and the Americans. And he promised in the next war, that Germany would do things differently, and of course they did do things differently, they setup a Ministry of Propaganda, they had a very clever propagandist as it’s director Joseph Gerbils. Propaganda comes into its maturity in the 20th Century. Now in the 21st Century with the expansion of television and electronic media. Prior to this era propaganda was limited to posters and perhaps some hand-outs and a few newspapers. The electronic umbilical cord had not yet developed to the extent that it exists now, particularly with the massive use of television.
KT: I know that you were recently in Turkey attending the World Tribunal on the War in Iraq, it was something that received absolutely no coverage in the west. Maybe you can talk about that and the Tribunal itself.
DB: There was a virtual media white-out or black-out, depending on which color you favour, when I say media I mean the corporate media. There was some coverage in the independent alternative media in the United States. This was an extraordinary event that occurred in Istanbul in the last week of June of 2005. It was the 20th and final session of a series of tribunals that have been held all over the world, New York, London, Rome, and other cities. Meeting on Iraq, and featuring testimonies and presentations, there was a jury in Istanbul featuring Arundhati Roy of India, the brilliant Chandra Muzaffar from Malaysia, Eve Ensler of the United States who is known as the writer of Vagina Monologues, and other people of that calibre, quite impressive. They heard, we heard testimony from a wide range of people, including Samir Amin of Egypt, Denis Halliday of Ireland a former Deputy Security General of the United Nations and one of the administrators of the infamous Food-for-Oil program, he resigned because he said that the sanctions were killing innocent Iraqis. His successor also was there in Istanbul giving testimony Hans Van Sponeck, he too resigned in protest, he said this program is not helping the average Iraqi, it’s killing them, he was there testifying. There were many Iraqis who came from Iraq, overland through Turkey. Dahr Jamail was there, a wonderful independent journalist, un-embedded, third-generation Lebanese on his father’s side, who decided when the Iraq war began in March of 2003 he was so disgusted and appalled by the coverage, or lack of coverage, in the media in the United States, he decided to go to Iraq. He is not a journalist.
KT: What was his background before that?
DB: He was doing odd-jobs, in fact he had even been in Colorado as a ski instructor, then he went to Alaska to climb mountains, he had been doing odd things. He is a late bloomer, he is in his late 30’s, he decide to become a journalist, which I thought was brilliant, it kind of in a way resonated with my own experience, I am kind of a late bloomer, I didn’t get started in doing this kind of work until I was into my mid or late 30’s, I had been doing other things, playing sitar, teaching English as a second language in the World Trade Center, jobs like that. I found it very admirable that Dahr just got up and went to Iraq and reported on what was going on there. So these were some of the people giving testimony. Haifa Zangana was there, from Iraq. A number of Iraqi women testified as to what was going on, how the war was affecting particularly women. And so the Tribunal met in Istanbul, it was organized by people in Turkey, very well done. I must tell you that the locale of the Tribunal was of significance, it was in the former imperial mint of the Ottoman Sultans in their great palace known as Topkapi. In the Topkapi Palace, which is now a big tourist destination, the imperial mint is falling apart, it hasnâ€™t been renovated. Here we were meeting in a building where the paint was peeling and the bricks were crumbling, it was very symbolic because here were the ruins of a former empire, and we are talking now about the depredations of another empire, another empire which will collapse, the US Empire. People could not miss the symbolism of that. The tribunal gave it’s final declaration, it found not just the United States guilty of war crimes, but the United Kingdom, the regime of Tony Blair, Berlusconi and Italy, John Howard of Australia, all of the countries that participated in this criminal attack on Iraq, that was kind of to be expected. There were a couple of other judgements that the jury delivered that were quite extraordinary. As far as I know for the first time in history, the media was singled out for culpability, corporate media was held responsible for being an accessory to the war. In what way? They acted as a conveyer belt for the lies that the Howard, Bush, Blair, and Berlusconi governments were generating, and they simply replicated them. They didn’t challenge them, they didn’t cross-examine them, they didn’t interrogate them. And in some cases even journalists were named, like Judith Miller of The New York Times, someone who became a mouth-piece for Ahmed Chalabi, a very wealthy Iraqi, who left Iraq after the 1958 overthrow of the Hashemite kingdom. He was from a very wealthy Shia family, he has lived in exile, and he has had a very corrupt and criminal background, he was sentenced to over 20 years in prison in Jordan, for criminal actions for defrauding and embezzling a bank there in Amman. This is the person that was giving information to Judith Miller about weapons of mass destruction, he hadn’t been in Iraq in 50 years, he was literally making stories up. And Miller, to her great discredit and shame, never challenged the information, never asked for subsistent evidence to support these wild allegations. So the media were held culpable, and also corporations such as Halliburton and Bechtel which have profited enormously from the attack on Iraq and the on-going occupation. But also some popular international companies like Pepsi, Nestle, KFC, who have profited from the war. So that was an interesting development, and I think a very important aspect of the World Tribunal on Iraq. People can read about the deliberations and final verdict, there are websites Iâ€™m sure, if you google World Tribunal on Iraq you can find that information. It was a very depressing event, on one hand, but also very inspiring. People from around the world gathered in Istanbul to deliver justice, as it were, to say that imperialist wars of aggression are not right and we the people of the world oppose it.
KT: I wanted to read something from Hakim Bey from his book Temporary Autonomous Zone, he writes:
“In the East poets are sometimes thrown in prison–a sort of compliment, since it suggests the author has done something at least as real as theft or rape or revolution. Here poets are allowed to publish anything at all–a sort of punishment in effect, prison without walls, without echoes, without palpable existence–shadow-realm of print, or of abstract thought–world without risk or eros.
“So poetry is dead again–& even if the mumia from its corpse retains some healing properties, auto-resurrection isn’t one of them.”
Poets in the East could shake up people, but over here what would it take to shake up people?
DB: In the United States, it is going to take a kind of rise in consciousness, people there don’t have information, they donâ€™t know what the government is doing in many cases. It happens over a period of time, I view the possibilities of change, I compare it to a marathon and a sprint. A marathon is a very long race. And a sprint is a very short race that is difficult to win and requires tremendous athletic conditioning and training, and is just 100m let’s say. Whereas a marathon is many many kilometres. So we need to develop independent media, we need to develop our own documentary films, which I am happy to say is happening, we do have poets in opposition but they donâ€™t have big audiences in the US. I want to give you an example of a very courageous act in the United States, Sharon Olds was recently honoured, she is a New York University professor and poet, she was honoured with the National Book Critics Award, she was invited to Washington DC by Laura Bush to attend a dinner and some ceremonies. She wrote a very eloquent letter saying that ‘I would be honoured, I wished I could attend, but the idea of breaking bread with you and sitting at a table with linens and candles and being served by waiters was just too disgusting and appalling, because of what shame you have brought to the United States with the blood on your hands and your husbands hands because of the criminal actions of the regime.’ Poets and artists have always been the first line of resistance, that has historically been more true in the East where the oral tradition is very strong, in Arab Middle Eastern countries, in Turkey, in Iran, in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, there has been a tradition of poets who speak out against power, who speak truth to power, who interrogate the popular wisdom, conventional thinking, and hegemonic ideas. To develop a culture of resistance requires quite a bit of internal development and societal maturation, which you don’t see a lot of unfortunately in the United States, not across the board, there are pockets of resistance in the US, in Berkley, in Madison, where I live in Boulder, in Albuquerque, in different cities around the US. But because of the role of propaganda, the influence of television and mass media, and an educational system that does not really educate, that inculcates rather than educates, that doesn’t train students to deconstruct, doesn’t train students to develop critical thinking; we have a lot of work to do inside the US in developing a consciousness where we can change the situation there otherwise this is just going to keep repeating itself.
KT: Can you talk more about media as a tool of intifada or media as a tool of resistance.
DB: Well, media is a critical tool of resistance, because without information, and without solidarity that that information provides, then populations are completely vulnerable to exploitation, to domination and to conquest. We need to, we – people in opposition, people in resistance to empire – need to fortify those electronic connections, those wires, we need to build those wires, we need to make those connections between our computers, our minidisks, and our cameras, and our e-mail lists and our websites, to build up an electronic intifada as it were, to fight back the corporate control of media which is trying to establish the legitimacy of empire and domination. We see in different parts of the world, filmmakers operating under the most difficult conditions, radio broadcasters creating community radio, low-power FM radio (that is a very important development), cable access TV, all of these media, newsletters, on-line and off-line zines. The Internet itself has become a great tool, but we need to know how to use it properly, otherwise we could just be buried under e-mails and endless encyclopaedia torrents of information, we need information that can lead to action, that can ignite a resistance in concrete ways. These developments are very very exciting, I am very optimistic, I am very happy to see, I am thrilled to see young people who have mastered the new media and intend to use it in creative ways. For example, the young Egyptian US-citizen Jehane Noujaim, she did a brilliant documentary on Al-Jazeera called Control Room. There are other young [filmmakers], not just in the United States, but let’s say Ireland, two young Irish filmmakers made a brilliant documentary on the attempted overthrow of the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela supported by the US, democratically elected I must say. It is called The Revolution will not be Televised. These are all relatively new developments, there are lots of websites on the Internet that are critically important, where I get a lot of information from. You can learn about what is going on in India in terms of resisting the big dams that the World Banks is trying to impose on that country, the Narmada Bachao Andolan – the NBA – is a very good example of a grassroots organization that is located in central India that has now achieved global visibility because of documentary films, because of the activities of Arundhati Roy and many others, activists from around the world, who are supporting people’s resistance against globalization.
KT: Can you talk about how your own political consciousness came about?
DB: Well I can’t pinpoint it to any one thing, it wasnâ€™t one book, or one demonstration that I went to. I think that my political consciousness is informed by my family background and that is we are Armenians. Historically, we have lived on our land, in what is now south-eastern Turkey for millennia. In 1915 there was a massive genocide carried out by the Turkish government, we lost everything, we were uprooted, our homes were left, our farms, our seminaries, our libraries, our churches, our cultural traditions, we were completely severed from that, and just thrown. In the case of my family, my mother lost many members of her family, we lost everything, and they found themselves in New York as immigrants, my father was a grocer, my mother raised me, I had three other siblings, there were four of us, relatively lower-middle class. I always wanted to know why did that happen, and my family were peasants, they were from a village, they werenâ€™t sophisticated, they werenâ€™t educated, they didnâ€™t know what happened to them. One day a cyclone occurred, there was a tornado, and they found themselves out of their home. That didnâ€™t satisfy me as a kid. I always asking questions: why did the Turks do this? What possessed them? What were the reasons? I wanted to know, and I couldnâ€™t get any explanations. And so I started studying, I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I am largely self-educated, I barely graduated from high-school in New York, I hated school, I played hooky most of the time, I would go to the movies instead of going to school, I would play games with my friends, we would never go to school. I did manage to go to college for one year, the same kind of thing, I was bored, I didnâ€™t go to classes, and then I dropped out. So I am largely self-educated, which I think in this instance was useful, because I didnâ€™t go through the propaganda networks, I didnâ€™t go through official training, I didnâ€™t get a proper education, I got a very improper education. For the kind of work I am doing, media and creating independent alternative media, I think that is a very plausible and useful way to develop your mind, because I wasnâ€™t trying to be, for example, a biochemist or dentist, where I needed very specific technical training. I am doing work in ideology, and this work simply requires common sense, an analytical mind, and a willingness to be fearless, to challenge, to ask questions, and to be sceptical, so when people in power say something you take everything with a grain of salt. Why are they saying that? Whose interests are being served? Whose interests are not being served? Who benefits from this policy? I think my background as a child of refugees, who came to the United States with nothing, who didnâ€™t know literally what happened to them, and interrogating that history, finding out what happened, and then my travels really opened up my eyes and awakened me. I had the great good fortune to live in Asia for almost five years, that was kind of like my education. I lived of those five years most of the time in India, in Delhi, where I had the opportunity to study with great master musicians, sitar players. I was exposed to one of the most sophisticated music systems in the world. This helped me politically also, because it trained my mind, it disciplined me, to think in a methodological way, in a chronological way. To be exposed to masters also inspired me to excel. I always tell this, there is a saying in Hindi: if you try and do many things at once you wonâ€™t do anything well, but if you do one thing well then you can do many things later. There is a lot wisdom in this adage. And I was also exposed to poetry, Urdu poetry, very beautiful, one of the great literary traditions in the world. I was in a culture where people would recite couplets or even entire ghuzals â€“ love poems â€“ by Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Momin, Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Shamim Jaipuri, and others. This elevated me, in a very positive way. When you are around excellence you internalize some of those things. Thatâ€™s a very inspiring thing. Even if you were a carpenter, and you learned carpentry from an ustad â€“ a master â€“ you have developed a certain power, a certain level of excellence that you can then transfer that to do other things. You can even be around master cooks, people who know how to make the most excellent cuisine, this helps you develop in other ways. I was very very lucky, that experience for me was I would say the most enriching and mind expanding of my life.
KT: It was a pleasure talking to you Ustad David Barsamian.
DB: (David laughs) Thank you, Kasim. Bhot bhot shukria apka.
This interview was recorded for CKUT Radio, a community radio station in Montreal, Canada. To listen to the interview, go to: http://www.radio4all.net/proginfo.php?id=14424