Today is the ninetieth birthday of Noam Chomsky! Though impossible to summarize such an incredible life with a few short articles, I hope that our conclusion of commemorations is icing on the cake for the Chomsky aficionado while a pique to the interest for newcomers. Today’s selection of videos glimpses his many discussions on geopolitics, activism, and history. And I conclude with a very special gift for Noam, so please read on.
Manufacturing Consent : C-SPAN
Noam appeared on C-SPAN some years ago to discuss Manufacturing Consent, a media critique, his seminal media critique co-authored with the late Edward Herman. Central to the book, the propaganda model identifies means through which corporate media must serve power in contravention to the stated purpose of a free press. The book itself is a good deal more technical than most of his later analytic books, so it might serve just to watch the documentary. Here, we present the book review.
Noam and Howard
Chomsky’s very close friend Howard Zinn was a titanic American historian who, to his professional peril, articulated the appropriately named A People’s History of the United States. Having met in the 1960s while working within the civil rights movements, Noam and Howard appeared in many interviews over the years, and here’s a great one from April of 2007 appearing on Democracy Now.
Chomsky chatted about Zinn not long after his passing. His reflections evoke heart-wrench, as Howard was a close personal friend. The world is lesser without him.
1995 : Contract with America, NAFTA, and Other Idiocies
Noam spoke on campus in 1995 to Doug Morris for an hour on contemporary American politics; NAFTA, Gingrich, and other topics of the day dominated the discussion.
Self-Destruction of the Species? Institutions versus People
Chomsky spoke in April of 2001 at MIT on the question of species self-destruction, arguing the crucial role of institutional stupidity. See the section below on Daniel Ellsberg for more.
What is Anarchism?
At a philosophy forum at the Czech Palacký University Olomouc, elder Chomsky discusses his take on anarcho-syndicalism and possible latter forms. One uppity whippersnapper argues that he’d prefer to be told what to do, with Noam’s response a rather clever one.
Chomsky on Dershowitz : “Just A Comic Figure”
Alan Dershowitz has recently indebted jingoists everywhere in his zany legal defenses of Donald Trump on Fox. Chomsky has debated Dershowitz several times through the years, describing him to me as “just a comic figure, desperate to defend his two clients, himself and the State of Israel, but smart enough to know that both are guilty as sin.” This was a reference to particular points of contention he and I were discussing regarding Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Dershowitz’ often ludicrous defense of it. “All this smoke that was blown…” is a great derogation Chomsky uses in the following debate in 2005 at Harvard’s John Kennedy School of Government.
Dan and Noam
Daniel Ellsberg was a government analyst working within the RAND corporation during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. He met Noam while working within the peace movement in the late 1960s. Here’s a picture of Noam, Dan, and Howard together in the 1970s.
In 1971, Noam defended his friend Daniel Ellsberg publicly after Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, the hidden, vicious history of the Vietnam War. This release significantly contributed to the growing public discontent with the negligent, criminal actions of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Be prepared to be annoyed as hell at the Buckley-esque cross-examiner, clearly more interested in hearing his own voice. I don’t even care enough to look up his name.
Noam and Daniel met at the University of Arizona this past spring to discuss Dan’s latest book, The Doomsday Machine, a book I hope to review here soon. These icons don’t pull punches in their scathing condemnation of nuclear proliferation. Don’t be depressed. This is a call to action!
9/11 and the “Rebel Without a Pause”
In 2005, filmmaker Will Pascoe produced Rebel Without a Pause, a documentary detailing the sharp uptick in Chomsky’s speaking requests after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York (not to be confused with the September 11, 1973 terror attack in Allende’s Chile.) Chomsky discussed his book on the former attack at the fifteenth anniversary of the Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR). Almost overnight, institutions, agencies, citizens spanning America and beyond expressed desperation in understanding what would motivate a group of criminals to murder thousands of civilians, killing themselves in the process. Listen for the most plausible explanation available, a summary and analysis of intelligence data and the historical, documentary record.
Bernie and Noam
Bernie Sanders is the most favorable political figure today, according to the far right news media Fox. Though Bernie’s 2016 campaign for president didn’t reach out to Noam for analysis, commentary, and so on (Noam told me this himself), they’ve crossed paths throughout the years; in 1985, Chomsky delivered a talk called “Deciphering Foreign Policy Jargon” at Burlington City Hall. Millennials will cheer when Bernie introduces Noam.
Noam and Gore
Noam and gay hero and activist Gore Vidal only occasionally appeared together; on the passing of Gore, Noam told me,
We were on similar paths,
but they didn’t cross
much. Moved in different
circles. We did have a
discussion once, arranged
by Jay Parini, a novelist
who’s a common friend.
Don’t know what happened to it.
A fine person, in my view.
And outstanding novelist, and
honest and often discerning
Well, it just so happens I found that video for him. Yesterday, we included Gore later recounting how no American media organization would release the video, not even in “San Francisco on a Sunday morning at four a.m.” In other words, not even the most “liberal” district featured mainstream media brave enough to challenge the recently deceased George H.W. Bush’s criminal aggression in Iraq.
Requiem for the American Dream
A very recent work of Noam’s called Requiem for the American Dream considers principles of wealth concentration in the post-industrial, neoliberal era. Documented in the same-named compilation of interviews with him, the instant classic was quite hard to find in theaters, even in the tolerant urban sprawl of Seattle. My husband and I could find only one venue, somewhat distant, and a cash-only operation. So much for the bastion of liberalism. One can find the full-length documentary here.
Randall Wallace and Chomsky Speaks
Randall Wallace, grandson of former vice president Henry Wallace, believes Chomsky to be perhaps the most important intellectual of the past century. To that end, he founded Chomsky Speaks, a project aimed at capturing as much of this incredible man on film as we can in Noam’s time with us. I’d invite you to take a look for yourself.
My Friendship with Noam
While studying computer science and the Georgia Institute of Technology, I came across Noam’s work repeatedly in courses on the theory of computation. In a purely academic pursuit, I searched the internet for discussions of his professional work; I then stumbled on his activist work, finding for the first time an author and thinker who spoke my language. Encyclopedic, diligent, and driven by integrity, his powerhouse talks became a significant time drain on me. I began ordering his books by the satchel, eager to consume every detail-packed tidbit he had to offer on geopolitics, critical analysis of foreign policy, and prescriptions for a better future. We began corresponding in 2012, remaining pen pals for these years since. I believe there isn’t a man I respect more, past or present. And it isn’t hero worship, as I, like Noam, stringently object to gladiators and saviors. Noam’s role as activist has been, and continues to be, an analyst, a curator of history, and a staunch defender of victims everywhere. Though he’d never admit it, it actually gratifies him to hear how his works have inspired generation after generation of activists. It isn’t immodesty. Each of us need validation that what we’re doing is meaningful, however minor or however impactful.
Here was my eager first meeting with the man himself.
So as Noam enters his tenth decade, let me close these three days of celebration with a song I composed and performed just for him; here are the lyrics. And the recording is below.
Today, we continue honoring the ninetieth birthday of Noam Chomsky, turning to his extensive contributions to linguistics, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind.
In 1971, Noam debated renowned French philosopher Michel Foucault, persisting the innateness hypothesis, or that the language faculty and some accompanying structure, are innate in all non-pathological human beings. Foucault, by contrast, defended the lingual empty vessel belief, requiring that no knowledge of language, or any kind for that matter, exists at birth. Among Chomsky’s arguments, of interest to my computer science readership, is that children can’t possibly learn the complexity of language by the very scant information gained from parents. The debate transcript appears on Noam’s personal website, and here is the complete video. It’s impossible to do this debate justice in just a few words, so I’d entreat you to read or listen, and prepare to be dazzled.
Day at Night
Chomsky appeared in 1974 on the short-lived public television program Day at Night, hosted by the late James Day, offering an interesting look at Noam’s interest in linguistics, activist roots, and the cognitive capacities of the beast called man.
“Grammar, Mind and Body – A Personal View”
Noam visited the University of Maryland in January 2012 to deliver an address to the Arts and Humanities Dean’s Lecture Series. This could be one of the most intriguing discussions I’ve found on his philosophy of mind; among the jewels revealed is Galileo’s lament that science had, and perhaps cannot, replicate even the most elementary of phenomena found in nature, and that his spiritual successor Newton demonstrated the impossibility in even proving the existence of the machine, to say nothing of exorcising its ghost.
Stony Brook Continuations : On the Philosophy of Mind
In what is chronologically the second of his Stony Brook discussions, Noam waxes the “philosophy of mind” with fellow linguist Peter Ludlow. Be prepared for a technical, and thus moderately inscrutable discussion. It nonetheless entertains.
Stony Brook : Evolution
In another Stony Brook discussion, Chomsky chats with Richard Larson about linguistics and evolution.
University of Washington’s Reflection
Upon Reflection was an interview program hosted by Al Page during his days at the University of Washington. Chomsky appeared in 1989 to discuss “The Concept of Language.” Among topics is the continuity by region, the variety of outcroppings, and the endangerment of rare forms, especially among near exterminated indigenous peoples.
Mind and Language in Boston, Narrowly Missing the Weather
Noam appeared at Boston College in the spring of 2011 to deliver yet another talk on mind and language, this time narrowly escaping the dramatic snowstorm in the winter of 2010 to 2011.
Jonnie Doebele and Linguistics for the Layperson
In 2011, German filmmaker Jonnie Doebele asks Chomsky to explain linguistics for the layperson. The ensuing discussion offers an amusing jumping-off point for the less technical curiosos.
Why Only Us
In 2017, Chomsky discussed joint work with collaborator Robert C. Berwick, professor of computer science and computational linguistics at MIT, on the origins of language; specifically, and I think correctly, they argue both from a computational and an archeological perspective that the language faculty appeared in humans as a mutation, and that its most apt characterization begins with the internal capacity to think about collections of objects, and ultimately the development of highly sophisticated internal models of the external world. More specifically, and counterintuitively, language didn’t develop as a means of communication.
Final Thoughts Today
Indeed, it is impossible to summarize the vast intellectual achievements of Noam Chomsky, despite the hours upon hours of the talks, interviews, and debates available online. We present only a paltry sample, and this excludes more than a tiny fraction of callouts to the myriad and many books, articles, and monographs featured in his and many other scientific disciplines moved by this great man.
Return tomorrow for one more day of honoring Noam, and for a special birthday present I prepared for his enjoyment.
My friend Noam Chomsky, a man of unparalleled scholarship and without peer in his lending the power of the ivory tower to the powerless, celebrates his ninetieth birthday this Friday. Now, anyone reading this blog would easily understand the profound admiration I hold in my heart for the man who, more than any other, demonstrated to me that not only is making a difference possible, it is essential. Encyclopedic, direct, and unwavering, he powerfully critiques state power and structures of domination and control, arguing that legitimacy of such structures must meet a high burden of self-justification. He emphasizes also the twin existential crises of the day, catastrophic climate change and nuclear proliferation, pointing to alarming environmental indicators and historical near-misses of nuclear attacks and accidents. It’s my genuine belief that we’re truly blessed to have ninety years with a man whose origins and giftings coalesced into such principle, magnanimity, and accomplishment. And there are, indeed, many Chomskys. Computer scientists know Chomsky of the eponymous Hierarchy and other key contributions to formal languages. Cognitive scientists know Chomsky as a progenitor of their discipline. Linguists know Chomsky the father of theirs. Indigenous peoples around the world see him as tireless advocate. Power elites know Chomsky the perennial thorn-in-the-side. Media specialists know Chomsky the scathing critic. Activists know Chomsky the immensely keen, unswerving analyst. I know Chomsky the warm, gentle man, eager to inspire a new generation of scientists and activists. He represents, to me, perhaps a paragon of mastery, autonomy, and purpose, achieving honor in his creative work while mindfully and willingly sharing the power his privilege confers with others. He represents, in short, an example of what I’d like to help create with this blog: a technologist activist duality of near perfect harmony. So join me for these three days in celebrating the beginning of nonagenarian life for Avram Noam Chomsky. For these three days, I’d originally planned to write a good deal more; unfortunately, cognitive difficulties have slowed me significantly, so we’ll celebrate rather with selections of his talks.
Chomsky on Television? Who? When?
Today, we’ll begin with the extremely rare television interviews with him in the United States, offering an interesting look at his early life and work.
We begin with Chomsky and William F. Buckley, once a prominent intellectual in the far right tradition. I’d not suggest one listen too far, as Buckley’s incessant interruptions, embarrassingly glaring narcissism, and accusatory finger-pointing can drive one to madness. But watching Buckley nearly break the wagging pencil while Noam demolishes his rubbish is kinda fun.
Next, we’ll jump forward a few years to a couple Stony Brook discussions where Noam gives a fairly good description of his early life and insight into Asian geopolitics. The tone and demeanor of the discussions is considerably easier to bear, so this one is worth the listen.
Here’s the second.
Next, Chomsky meets with renowned and respected journalist Bill Moyers, a discussion split over two videos. Here’s part one.
And here’s part two.
Imagine Chomsky on modern television! Maher invited him on because of viewer pressure, but only for three minutes. What a laugh!
Noam has appeared on C-SPAN here and there, often for book reviews. They’ve also aired selected talks. Here’s his first appearance.
For rather obvious reasons, I anguished whether to include this 2003 interview, but I believe it nonetheless remains an important part of the history of Chomsky’s television appearances.
Noam returned in 2006.
A Few Final Words
After absorbing the videos above, you among my American readers may wonder why the hell a mainstream media system with the trappings of “free press” would so sparingly feature a man of such clarity, depth, and near impeccable primary source underwriting. Here’s his answer, a clip from the documentary Manufacturing Consent, based on his seminal media critique co-authored with the late Edward S. Herman.
And one further answer from the late great Gore Vidal.
Thanks for joining me in the first of three celebratory days, and here’s hoping that the next ninety years features a lot more mainstream media attention on Chomsky.
awareness of the relationship between
personal experience and the wider society[.]
Though it’s difficult to convey the full range of topics Derber and Magrass tackle, of initial interest to me was Sociopathic Society, a discussion of American empire and the intrinsic sociopathy of capitalist and coercive organizations; I later learned of Bully Nation, an incredible reframing of bullying in American society as a necessary feature of capitalism and militarism. Since I couldn’t complete the book before this interview, we only briefly touch on the subject. Though the interested reader will find links for several of Charlie and Yale’s books below, a more complete list appears here.
I very much enjoyed my time with Charlie, (despite his stacking more books into my already hopelessly long reading list!), and like the interdisciplinarity of sociology, our discussion meandered among many important topics. Certainly it’s worth starting at the beginning, though the reader ought feel free to jump in anywhere, as the water is fine. Unfortunately, I’m suffering frustrating cognitive impairment as of this writing, and though my participation is slow throughout the discussion, I’ve tried editing to ensure the audio is easier hear.
NP Slagle: Welcome to Scire Populum et Potentiam, to know the people and power. It’s my great pleasure to welcome Charles Derber, professor of sociology at Boston College, where he’s taught for over 30 years. Professor Derber’s the author of over twenty books covering people’s movements, identity politics, history, political science, and, notably, economics. Professor Derber and his frequent co-author, Professor Yale Magrass, more recently broke ground by explaining the bullying epidemic as an expected outcropping of a society where winners and losers, heroes and villains, militarize capitalism and, thus, the glorification of competitive violence have become the norm. Professor Derber, welcome.
Charles Derber: Thanks, Neil. That’s a nice introduction.
NPS: I thought you might approve, or at least I was hoping. The real question is whether I pronounced Professor Magrass’ last name correctly.
CD: You did. Perfectly.
NPS: Oh. Oh my goodness. Oh, wow.
CD: Yeah. As in most of my writing, much is driven by the idea that we live in a society in which people learn to identify all the problems or issues as purely psychologically and individually motivated rather than having anything to do with systemic institutional causes, which most people, that’s how it’s tracked. So, really, people don’t understand it very much. As a sociologist, or a sort of a person who looks at institutional and systemic forces like capitalism itself, it’s important for me to try to offer is how to take seriously the kinds of personal and psychological issues that people struggle with, but to root them in social, structural realities that tend to be ignored. Elites, the economic and political elites, have a big stake in making sure that people think that way and that they blame individuals for problems or blame themselves rather than thinking about the way in which larger social institutions and the culture and so forth play a big role. I grew up learning the material that I work with these days in the 60s and 70s and there was a sociologist you probably have heard of the name C. Wright Mills, who wrote The Sociological Imagination and The Power Elite. He said that sociology was all about contextualizing personal problems as social problems. In other words, what we experience as personal crises, or emotional problems or so forth, reflect very strongly structural institutional realities that tend to be read out of the national conversation, sort of excised and censored out. While in some societies, people are more naturally thinking in this way, such as in colonized societies, within western capitalist societies, there’s a kind of propagandistic ideological apparatus that really works very hard to get people into therapy or into purely psychological forms of conversation and thinking, which prevent them from making these connections between personal issues and societal issues.
NPS: Right, right. Yes. From the standpoint of algorithm design, it is the inability to see the global framework and how that actually sways local phenomena instead of just saying that it’s a localized phenomena. It’s interesting to me, because that is a substantive miss across the board when you look at the way that capitalism is designed, or at least the way that it’s propagandized. That each of us should pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and if we, in the school of Ayn Rand, seek only the maximization of our own profit that somehow that makes the entire system better.
CD: Right. Beyond even that, sort of, and that’s a good formulation, Ayn Rand is a perfect example of it. Beyond even that, I think, if you take neoclassical economics, which is the dominant school of economics in the United States, there’s really not even a conception of anything but the individual, not anything of the idea of society or of a public good or the commons or however you want to think about these sort of, what you’re calling the macro-level realities, really kind of disappear because the market is constructed as the action of millions of atomized individuals who have no real interdependence on each other. They’re involves in purely transactional interactions on the market.
CD: Right. Right. I think capitalism as, think particularly the model developed in the United States, is very, very sort of punitive in that approach. There’s such a intense focus on individual that everything that goes wrong with a person is attributed to that person’s laziness or lack of intelligence and so forth. You see that really, really strongly in Trump’s discourse now and so forth. Figure out whet it’s racialized, or genderized, or so forth.
CD: Yeah, it’s a big issue and a lot of my writing has been, [though] I’m in a sociology department, I do write for a general public and you mentioned my field accurately, but it really does come out of this sort of fundamental recognition that societies are constituted by interdependent individuals. I’m all for individual expression and freedom, it’s really, really fundamental, but that can’t be established without creating a strong sense of sort of the integrity of society-
CD: Of social connections. Yeah.
NPS: Oh, right. Yeah. We are animals that could not survive on our own in the wild. It’s preposterous.
NPS: Noam Chomsky likes to say, he can’t grow his own food. I certainly can’t grow my own food. At least he’s done some gardening. I haven’t. We depend very heavily on the super structure of society and, really, the state in the way that it provides for our needs and subsidizes agribusiness to make sure that there is cheap food available, even though there are children going hungry in this country. That’s another serious problem. There are so many different serious problems that I want to discuss with you. I’m so, so pleased to have you on the phone. This is great.
CD: Thanks, Neil. I appreciate your interest in my thinking. Yeah.
NPS: Well, the way that I came across your works, I was listening to Chomsky give a talk and he mentioned your name. Oftentimes, he’s referred to the atomization of American society and the deeply seated and rooted fear in our culture. Which I grew up in sort of an outcropping of the evangelical movement in Texas, so those are the things that I heard. Literally, I was taught to be terrified of black people in my hometown, and, of course, it couldn’t be further from the truth that they presented any danger at all. The opposite was actually true. There was police violence in my hometown that was never talked about in the daily newspaper that took place in the sort of black quarter of the city. So, yeah, as I started to discover these things, by taking college history for one, that actually has the power to open one’s eyes, I saw a completely different world that I’ve not been able to turn my back to. But we’re not here to talk about me, as much as conversational narcissism may try to take hold.
CD: No, no. I’m very interested. Your background sounds very, very interesting. Your work is very interesting, so let’s make this a shared conversation.
NPS: Yeah, yeah. Well, we’ll … When we get to Bully Nation and discussing that, I can talk about some of the horror stories that I’ve experienced, particularly in these Fortune 500 companies, where … I’ve been asked questions many times about The New York Times article that was published a year or so ago where it was something of an expose of the internal culture. I was asked whether this was actually true, and I said, “Yes, it is.” The group that I was in, I was very much immune to that. Our group and pretty much our org, which was Amazon Logistics, so we did last mile planning to replace UPS and the postal services. We were fairly well immunized from the culture, because it was recognized how difficult the problem is that we were solving. Which, that gets back to solving a problem globally versus locally or greedily. In algorithmic circles, they’ve got this stuff down, but you still see people on LinkedIn, high technologists that I’m connected with, preaching the Ayn Randian way of optimization, despite the fact that they know in their own scientific work it doesn’t work.
Activist Origins: From New Deal to Leftist for Real
NPS: Anyway, back to you, I want to ask you some questions about your beginnings. These are conversations with activists, in an effort to understand really this vast network of activists that have been in Americana all of this time but we don’t see you guys in. Well, I say, “you guys.” You gals and guys. We don’t see that network in mainstream media. We occasionally will see it in popular media like Hollywood, but we don’t see it in mainstream media for the most part. You were born in Washington, D.C. Can you tell me some about your early beginnings and how that sort of informed your activism?
CD: Well, I think my family history plays a big role, because I grew up in a Jewish liberal family that my father was a New Deal economist[, Milton Derber, during] what I call the New Deal Regime, which was a period of American history stretching from 1932 to 1980, I would say-
CD: I grew up in a family where, at dinner, we talked every night about politics and society and the economy, and you just grow up in that world of thought. I grew up in … After I moved away from where I was born in D.C., my father was working at the Labor Department and he got a job in the Economics and Labor Institutes at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. We had this culture of conversation. I wonder now that the family dinner, now that I think about it, has sort of disappeared, how many people have lost that as a cultural breeding ground, because, sort of, that’s the way the New Deal kind of sensibility got transmitted to me. I remember my parents both being very, very engaged with issues of the New Deal and the Depression and, of course, the Holocaust was going on. The family was ripe for bringing up kids who had a focus on this. Then, when I became adolescent and then went off to high school and college, I was primed for the good match between my family background and the political era that was emerging in the sixties so that I sort of naturally emerged as really, really well primed for the kind of social activism and social critique that was coming out of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. I spent my formative, young adult years in that environment, in college and graduate school. I was kind of, during that period, a full-time activist. I was literally in jail or in school reading Neo-Marxist or Herbert Marcusian-type political philosophy. It was just one of those … I think everyone in my generation was affected, impacted by that period of activists. I think that was the last real period of mass left engagement in the United States, and I just happened to be fortunate to sort of be at an age where I was being … I think there’s an age where people tend to get imprinted with their political dispositions for the rest of their life, and that was sort of what happened to me. I moved sort of from the New Deal liberalism of my father to the really left activism of my own generation in the sixties. Really, it was just sort of, I think of people as being very shaped by their history and the global histories, so to speak, as well as your microhistory. They just converged to make me a very political person and a person very concerned with social justice for working people and for the downtrodden in general. The civil rights movement, of course, made me very sensitive to racial discrimination and the war made me-
CD: Yeah, and I went down to Mississippi in ’65 for the summer and was involved with all kinds of voter registration and other efforts down there. Spent the whole summer down there and worked with a lot of both black and white activists. Then came back. I went to graduate school in ’65 at the University of Chicago in sociology and spent almost all my time in jails and Washington, going there every weekend. Literally, almost every weekend during four years, protesting the war and becoming really, really immersed in activist culture and in sort of a kind of a protest intellectual struggle with the academic departments. For example, in the sociology department at the University of Chicago, much like the economics department, which was a Milton Friedman, neoclassical economics department, there was a sociology department where it had people like Morris Janowitz, who, probably are not household names, but he was a well-known sociologist who has been very much in support of the Vietnam War. I had to grow up shaping my intellectual life in opposition or contestation with the powers that be intellectually. I was experiencing on a personal intellectual level the same thing that groups [were experiencing.] I was relatively privileged economically, because my father was a white, upper-middle class professional person, but I had to contest a lot of the dominant intellectual forces in universities at the time. There were just, I think, a whole set of factors, which, I think, helps to explain why it endured when much of the left fell apart in the seventies and we got into a regime change, as I call it.
I don’t know if you ever looked at this Neil, but I wrote a couple of books, one is called Regime Change Begins at Home, and Hidden Power is a second book that’s sort of a paperback version of that but quite revised, which looks at American history as a series of internal regime changes and I argue there are five. The first regime (these are since the Civil War) was the first corporate regime of the Gilded Age and the robber baron. Then the progressive regime of Teddy Roosevelt and then on to the New Deal Regime of my parents, which really extended up to the Reagan. I called the 1920s the second corporate regime and the Reagan revolution, the third corporate regime. I just think it was natural of me to sort of get involved in regime change sort of politics at home, as well as afflicting people they involved, because of my Vietnam experience with global imperialism and [hegemony], the kind of stuff that Noam writes about so much …
NPS: Right. At a time when it was really hard to get even students to protest the war. At least before 1965, right?
CD: Yeah, at least initially. That’s right. That’s right. Noam writes about this. I’m actually working with Noam. I don’t know if you read that. I’ve had a long friendship with him. He’s been at MIT and in Boston until they moved to Arizona just a year or two ago. As you know, he responds to almost everybody who responds.
NPS: Oh my goodness. He responded to me five years ago, and we’ve been pen pals ever since. I actually flew up to meet him, and I’m hoping to get to interview him at the end of January. I actually composed and wrote him a birthday song since his next birthday coming up in December is really the big one.
CD: That’s right. The biggest. The big one, yeah.
NPS: It’s because we’ve got 10 fingers, so that’s why. Multiples of ten are great. How did you meet him? You also knew Howard Zinn, right?
CD: Yes, I did.I was lucky because when I came [to Boston] and I was doing this kind of work, [though] after Reagan, the universities and intellectuals became, like, the whole culture became more conservative. I went into sociology not because of sociology, per se, but just because it’s very heterodox. In psychology or political science, the discipline is more restricted, and I knew with sociology you could almost do anything and required a lot of history and a lot of economics and politics. It was a good choice because I could do political economy and get away with it and get tenure in the sociology department. With regard to Howard and Noam. I had sent Noam some early stuff. He read everything, of course, and would blurb my early books right away. It was amazing because I couldn’t. He was so, even at that point, becoming very, very celebrated and incredibly busy, but he always maintained time. He’s a very generous person that way.
NPS: He is, indeed.
CD: As you know. Yeah, my connection with him was just very fortuitous, and I’ve maintained this long relation with him. I’m working with him closely now. I’m just mentioning this as part of a biography that might be relevant to you a bit.
NPS: Sure. Yeah, I read this, but I want it to be on here, as well. Yeah.
CD: Right. I had met a guy named Randall Wallace, who’s the grandson of Henry Wallace, who is the vice-president for Roosevelt in 1940 and would’ve probably ended the We would’ve not had a Cold War if he had been kept on the ticket in ’44.
NPS: It was incredible, the story of Henry Wallace and how the Democratic party forced Harry Truman, which, Harry Truman was inept by comparison, and they-
CD: Absolutely. Wallace would’ve been the most progressive president in American history, probably, and he-
NPS: We were ripe for it. We were perfectly ripe–
CD: Yeah. We absolutely were, but the corporate elites were still strong enough to knock him out. Even though Eleanor really wanted him and so forth. Anyway, he had some children and grandchildren and got quite a lot of money because he had been Secretary of Agriculture, and he had developed a breed of hybrid tomatoes and other genetically developed products. He became quite well-to-do and left a lot of money to his children. His grandkids, now, one is actually running the Global Wallace Fund. His name is Scott Wallace. He runs the Global Wallace Fund, which gives out a lot of money to good Keynesian activists, I would say. Liberal activists, progressive activists, but not far left. He’s running in a seat in Pennsylvania right now. He’s likely to win. He’s ahead right now, so he’ll be one of the new class of congresspeople. There’s this fellow, his name is Scott Wallace. If the Democrats take over the House. His other brother is named Randall Wallace. Randall contacted me. Randall runs a fund called the Wallace Action Fund and he contacted me about five or six years ago, told me he’d be reading my books for years, and invited me to come out to California for a conference on the environment and politics and capitalism that he was running. We developed a friendship, and he began funding a relationship for several books on resistance and political activism and capitalism and so forth. The connection with Chomsky is that Randall Wallace, who is much more radical than his brother and very much sees Chomsky as sort of the single most important thinker today, and he and I worked together to sort of develop a kind of legacy project with Chomsky and his new wife. After Chomsky’s wife died, his first wife, Carol, he was on his own for a few years and then met and eventually married a lovely woman named Valeria. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to talk to her, but she’s from Brazil. They just were in Brazil during this fascist takeover that’s going on down there.
NPS: He was telling me about it in our latest correspondence. Yeah.
CD: Yeah. Yeah. It was … He was with Lula in prison and so forth. Yeah. I’ve been in very close contact with him and I’m actually doing a lot of my work right now; I did a film, which actually I’d like to send to you.
CD: Film called Noam Chomsky: Internationalism or Extinction. It deals with the sort of double barrel threat to survival of life of our planet from both climate change and nuclear war. Actually, if you just got to ChomskySpeaks.org, you can get it, or http://ChomskySpeaks.org, and you’ll get that.
CD: You can get both a two minute trailer, and then the whole film, which is about an hour long. It’s based on a talk Noam gave in Boston a couple years ago.
CD: It’s full of really brilliant visuals that the film director that we got, we’re pulling in. It’s a powerful film, and we’re distributing it very widely. We’re trying to get Noam to get the transcript of his talk turned into a book with some introductory material and some response by activists to it, so people don’t get too bummed out and depressed by the whole thing. It doesn’t focus a lot, and so you know, it’s a hard message to hear.
NPS: It is, yeah.
CD: I’m actually, I’m going to try to get him to do a book where we, he’ll just give us the transcript and we’ll have some activist groups responding and other intellectuals responding to how, to the kind of argument he’s making there and so we hope to get a book out called Chomsky on Internationalism or Extinction and I’m writing sort of a companion piece called Resistance or Extinction. So, that’s one line of the work we’re doing and then–
CD: We’re also, out of that film we did some separate interviews with Noam and we’re putting out a book called Chomsky For Activists, which looks, do a series of both biographical and intellectual interviews with Noam, which we film. Which is, people won’t know about because it goes back to his childhood in Philadelphia and then looks at his whole history of activism. Because I think a lot of people find Noam depressing because he has this very critical, analytical view which is, has inspired millions of people, but a lot of people don’t understand that he’s also a genuine, a genuinely committed activist and has done a lot of, you know, social change work both personally and–
NPS: Absolutely. Yeah.
CD: His organization and so yeah. So anyway I’m all embedded in that work right now. So anyway, yeah. So I, I just, yeah, that’s my, the only thing I would add about my activism, and I just, I’m dwelling on it because I think activism is so critically important now–
NPS: It’s incredibly, yeah.
CD: Not only just because of the election although I think the election is very important where we’re talking three days before the election but, the November mid-term election but, the only other thing I would add is that, on my mother’s side, a number of her family was killed in the, with fascism, you know, the holocaust and on my father’s side out of Russia. And so this resurgence of fascism and particularly globally in Europe, and of course Trump’s sort of authoritarian and kind of version of neo-fascism, I think all of that stuff has played a role in sustaining my political involvement and so forth. So anyway, that’s enough about that.
CD: Just, I do believe that, you know sort of capitalism is all about keeping people quiet and I’m always telling my students, you know, they ended the draft so you guys don’t get, you can stay detached from American militarism and you just don’t get bothered about politics. And I just feel like the main priority I have now is to wake people up to the small extent I can and recognize the power and importance that young people have, and ordinary people have, in making a difference right now, so.
NPS: You know, I was talking to my best friend, Robin Fitts is his name. And he is a, he’s a junior college professor of English and Literature in West Texas. I’ve been trying to get him, him and his wife and their little girl to leave Texas for a long time, to somewhere better. But he has been very much so involved in Beto O’Rourke’s campaign.
CD: Oh, cool.
NPS: And it’s, of course it’s easy to get discouraged because the media and sort of the superstructure of, of how we’re supposed to think in this country, the culture is, you by yourself can’t do anything.
CD: Right, right.
NPS: You’re powerless. Americans are, have this overwhelming sense of impotence, that, that, is, it’s, and–
CD: You’re absolutely right, Neil. And particularly young people, I mean because I ask my students who are pretty privileged all the time, and they say, “Well I’m just one person, I don’t have any power, as a group we don’t have any power.” And that sense of impotence and, and powerlessness is, is you know very carefully nourished I think. And it’s, I mean I understand it, I feel it myself sometimes. So I, I understand them, but it’s just so important. And I think people like Beto O’Rourke, and even though he’s much further to the right than I am, he, he–
NPS: Absolutely, yeah.
CD: I think the Democrats are, I mean the one sense of positive energy I have, you know, in terms of electoral politics today, is that there is a little bit of a wave of, you know the left, sort of energizing you know people like Alexandria Cortez. And Bernie Sanders talking about socialism, and people like Beto O’Rourke even in the south, or Stacey Abrams, or any of these people. Sort of creating, you know maybe it starts in this very modest way of people feeling that just voting can make a difference. Of course, trying to vote, for a lot of people, is very hard these days but you’re right.
NPS: But what I, what I do tell my best friend, and I agree with you, I think Bernie Sanders actually way to the right of me and you also.
CD: Yeah. Oh sure.
NPS: But none the less, he upended 120 years of electoral conventional thinking around how money–
NPS: Money runs the show. And this is what I told my friend Robin, that if Beto actually loses in Texas, it may be to his advantage. Because the fact remains that he’s not taking any money from PACs or corporations, and it’s still neck-and-neck in ruby red Texas with, I mean Ted Cruz is not particularly well liked, but none the less it shows that the young people are having a very powerful influence. It’s not just the change in demographics, well I guess that is a change in demographics, it’s not just that you’ve got more Hispanic people in Texas, it literally is that young people aren’t afraid of words like socialism. That’s why they were prepared to vote early.
CD: Right. Well that, that was really, I completely agree with you Neil, and I, I think that Bernie, just by calling himself a democratic socialist, and then getting a following, I often tell my students that, you know, the word most Googled the day he first mentioned that. Oh I see you just sent me a song for Noam, thank you, I’ll enjoy looking at that. That itself was transformative because, for the first time, and I’ve been teaching for you know almost fifty years, I, I’m seeing that people, the students are very, very, I mean they’ve always been receptive to the idea but the word socialism was sort of taboo. Even in university. And now, it’s a little bit different. In fact, there are a lot of interesting polls that you’ve probably seen and that I write about in some of my books where, you know, the Pew Institute and Gallup and others have been asking for about ten years people’s association with the word socialism and capitalism and so forth.
CD: And as you probably know, now, young people have about as strong, or more, a positive association with the word socialism than they do with the word capitalism and Bernie really helped push that along although it was emerging well before him. And in fact that’s true across a lot of the Democratic party and a lot of the Democratic party base. And in fact a lot of the whole American public is, in terms of issues per se, you know like money in politics and do they like labor unions, do they like big money in politics, do they like Medicare for all, you know, Medicaid for all and so forth, the public is pretty progressive. I’ve always felt like the left’s movement has got to meld more fully into conversation with the left wing of the Democratic party. And you’re seeing some of that begin, you know, with sort of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, you know, sort of bleeding over into the movements to some degree.
CD: People like Nina Turner, people who are in congress and now running Sanders, or some grassroots organizations, I think that’s a very promising synergy. I mean I think the movements need to have a role, and you know the united front. If you look at Germany, you know I mean, there wasn’t this, Hitler got into power, all these right wing guys running around in the ’20s in Weimar Germany, were, they weren’t connecting enough to, between the cultural movements there, the political movements on the ground, and the parties. And I think that’s, that’s real something, a historical lesson to recognize today here. That political change is going to take a melding, you know sort of a united front of some form, which, whether it’s going to be a pretty big spectrum of views, but where you get less people on the ground, community activists on the ground of all kinds, melding in with electoral left wing Democratic party. And you know they’re never going to be the same kinds of people or groups exactly, but the synergy and interaction between them are really important, so.
NPS: It’s the one, it’s the one public institute, well it’s a public institution, and therefore it’s the only institution that they really have any sway over.
NPS: And trying to work within that framework, although I do believe, and I’m curious to get your thoughts on some of the different things that we could do to change at least the structure of those institutions, like either increasing the court size or you know, substantially increasing the size of congress and gutting the power from the executive branch. And of course those are, those are hard, we have to be in power before we can even do those things.
CD: Right, yeah.
NPS: Or at least people on the streets, you know, having peaceful protests everywhere that might enough to really start moving us in that direction. I mean, for–
CD: Well I think it’s the only thing, I think it’s the only thing, Neil, really. I mean, beyond you know massive economic collapse and that kind of thing, is it’s popular movements on the street that will move. Because, because the legal system, the constitutional order is, and you were starting to, you know, enumerate some of those, are so structured to guarantee elite influence. I mean just the way the electoral college is constituted, the way the you know the way the senate is structured, I mean almost all the dominant political institutions are, are oriented to keep popular representation from being expressed. And so that’s why I believe that you need popular movements on the ground. But that those will burn out if they don’t find ways of getting their voice heard. At all levels of electoral politics as well. And you know, that’s not an easy argument to make, either to the Democratic party or to left activist groups. You know I mean, the left activist groups see the Democratic party as sell-outs and not worth cultivating very often and they elect, the Democratic party people are often so bought into the, the mainstream just because they need so much money for their campaigns and so forth. And I think you’re beginning to see some, some productive you know shift in that where you’re getting a more progressive Democratic party person tied in, recognizing that their support is going to come partly from more left progressive movements on the ground. That’s a hopeful thing to me.
NPS: It’s interesting you mention that, I, I was at the café I frequent up the road yesterday and one of the bus girls who works there, her name is Karen, she wanted to know what I did for a living and she was wanting to go back to school and she had interest in mathematics but also an interest in activism. Of course I had your book, Sociopathic Society there with me, I take it there to make notes, and that’s what I was doing sort of in preparation for this interview. But I explained to her exactly what you said about people’s movements and that every single freedom that we can point to today comes from a people’s movement. And, and most often, it’s, it’s intertwined inextricably with labor movements.
NPS: And that the 40 hour work week and paid vacation and, you know, holidays, literally in observance of holy days, none of that would have been possible without the brutal struggles that the labor movements had to endure in earlier parts of–
CD: Oh okay yeah because I developed that idea in the book and in that interview. And I mentioned it just because you were talking about how central the labor movement has been to that and I think what’s created such weakness on the left is the, and this is the center of the argument in the Welcome to the Revolution book, and my idea of universalization. Is that after the late ’60s, the left really kind of decomposed as it abandoned sort of issues about labor and capitalism and moved into a more narrow, sort of abstracted away from class concept of identity politics around race and gender and so forth. And my, well yeah as you probably know from listening to that conversation with Hedges, I, I feel that that’s been a truly catastrophic you know problem on the left and it’s almost eliminated what I think of as a real left. Not that I don’t think race and gender aren’t very, very important issues, they’re obviously critical, but if you try to, you know, do a kind of civil rights, anti-racist politics or feminist kind of politics with that abstracted away from issues of economics and political economy and capitalism, you come out with some dangerous things. And some things that have been, that really–
NPS: That aren’t useful.
CD: You know in my judgment, undermine the whole idea of what the left is trying to do in some ways, so.
NPS: I can give you a really good example of that. So the only social media presence that I have, other than being on George Polisner’s civ.works is on LinkedIn because of my professional trade but I also want to promote articles, interviews from the activist side.
NPS: But often times you will see perfectly well-meaning high technologists writing long winded arguments as to why diversity in the corporate structure is good for profits.
NPS: And of course, the underlying theme there is that profits really are the proxy for welfare. For general welfare.
CD: Right, exactly.
NPS: And that nothing else is important. And so therefore, we just hope, we hold our breath, and cross our fingers, and close our eyes, believing that race and gender being more equally distributed into the corporate hierarchy, will in fact improve profits. Because if it doesn’t, or heaven forbid it actually detracts from profits, then it will not be something that was good. So that there’s this, this broken duality. Cathy O’Neill in her book Weapons of Math Destruction talks about this, this idea of boxing one particular metric for all of the others. I work in that kind of stuff every day at work, I work as a statistician on Bing ads. I hate to say that I’m in the financial sector but fortunately I’m not doing the vicious parts of the job.
CD: Right, right.
NPS: But it gets back to that problem of saying, “This is the one thing that matters. Everything else is secondary, so we only can hope that our, you know, heartfelt, you know, I’m really rooting for the underdog because I want the underdog to actually be the one that makes more money.” You know.
CD: Right, yeah. Well you know, it’s even, I think it’s even more serious than the way you framed it in a way because it’s, it’s, when you were talking about how diverse high-tech people think about corporate diversity as a solution, that is a good model but I think of things like Sheryl Sandburg, you know the, as sort of representing a third wave feminism which, you know you remember her famous book Lean In, which tells women the real nature of feminism is to get ahead in the corporation and get that corner office by getting women right into the top. And that is such a, you know, sociopathic version of feminism you know because it, it really says women just need to join the rat race to the top of the capitalist corporate circle. As if, somehow, if we have women running a ruthless capitalist global system, we’re going to have a much better society. And I’m a strong feminist but I think her version of feminism is really dangerous, you know. And I think it’s pervaded a lot of what used to be called the left, you know, where you, you sort identify with progress of a specific identity community. Often which is very, very important, I mean like I said, I cut my teeth on black, you know, civil right activism and so forth. And I, I view, I view these communities as very important. But when the movements to empower them become separated from these larger systemic issues of capitalism, which they have been completely in the United States. I mean, Martin Luther King, as I mentioned in the Hedges interview, you know while he did toward the end of his life really did focus on economics as a–
NPS: And anti-war. Yeah.
CD: And anti-war as sort of intersectional you know realities that were essential for any kind of civil rights or anti-racist kind of politics, it kind of got erased from the history of the movement. And pulling back a little bit, I noticed on his 50th anniversary there was, there was some discussion, there was, the media had some people who talked about his writing on Vietnam and on the economy and so forth but in general it’s been–
NPS: It’s whitewashed.
CD: It’s been erased. Yeah, whitewashed. And it’s been, it’s a catastrophe for the left. I think it’s one of the reasons the left is so weak in the United States.
NPS: Absolutely. Yeah. I didn’t hear any of those stories when I was in secondary school.
NPS: In fact my, my US history teacher in high school refused to take us past the end of World War II because she thought the rest of it was too controversial to talk about.
NPS: So I mean, that, that’s–
CD: Well that was down in Texas, right?
NPS: Yep, yep. That’s a very extreme example of that kind of whitewashing is just, “Okay well we’re not going, we’re not going to touch it at all.” But I didn’t know those things about Martin Luther King until, well I guess my, my high school English teacher, favorite high school English teacher, Candace Zangoei is her name and she’ll probably read and listen to this interview, she, she did teach us some interesting items from American history because she was teaching us American literature. It’s funny that you have to go to the literature side, you have to go to the arts to hear history.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: Depending on the system. But yeah, that, so what you were saying earlier about having more women leadership or people of color leadership so that this idea that a woman dictator’s better than a man dictator, so.
CD: Right. Exactly.
NPS: So that dictatorship is okay. That’s exactly what happened with Obama’s election.
NPS: The left withered, whatever you can call the left, I mean.
NPS: You and I, you and I know what that means.
NPS: The mainstream depiction of that is wrong. But we have the first black president so it doesn’t matter that he kills–
CD: Right. Exactly.
NPS: Civilians with drones. All of that’s okay.
CD: And you know, that had a really tangible and concrete political consequence because the peace movement for example, which had emerged against Bush during the Iraq war and so forth, really vanished under Obama. Even though Obama intensified a lot–
NPS: He was more hawkish.
CD: Of American militarism. So, so that’s a perfect example, right, of where you say, “Okay I don’t want to challenge a black president.” And so you allow the more toxic and lethal elements of the system, and by more I mean some of the most vicious aspects of the system, to go unchallenged. And the peace movement, you know, goes away.
NPS: Is they, they don’t care. They just want power and money. They don’t care what color it is or what party.
CD: Absolutely. In fact they legitimate themselves by virtue of their saying that, “Look, we’re technically, you know, we are open to women and blacks and everybody.” And that’s a hugely important legitimating force for, you know, for capitalism itself.
CD: So yeah, it’s an issue that’s really hard to deal with and it’s very important. And I’m glad we’re talking about it because it just can’t be talked about enough, you know.
CD: And it’s such a sensitive issue because, you know, people in these identity communities really do face tremendous struggles and they, they often thing this is some repetition of the white students of the late ’60s who sort of became dominant and sort of marginalized black and women and so forth. I mean I understand that, that concern, fully. And that’s why the, the new waves of feminist and global movements develop but, and the left itself created it but. I just think that today, Trump would not have been elected if the Democratic party, I mean sort of Hillary ran, and this is a problem that infects the left movements themselves, I mean the real left. And then it also, or let’s say what passes as closest to the real left in America today.
CD: And also the Democratic party, you know Hillary ran a campaign where she would trot out all these black faces and women and say just being a woman was. And, and you know, in regard to the movement, I really want to be careful because it can sound very patronizing for a white male to say, “Hey all you black and female people and brown people and gay people and so forth, don’t be so obsessed with your own particular thing.” I don’t mean it in that way.
CD: What I mean is that for, for the, for liberation let’s say, of black people or brown people or women or gays or whatever, Native Americans, disabled people, I mean, it’s really important that people build organizations among those communities but I think it’s crucially important to recognize that to get any kind of, first of all, to get the masses of people behind you, you need-
CD: … a broad systemic vision and momentum and two, you’re going to end up like Sheryl Sandberg, you know, competing for the pieces of the pie that the system is willing to allocate to you rather than questioning the system itself and that’s going to lead to perpetual hopelessness, so, yeah, it’s-
CD: … just a really, really-
NPS: To temporarily pacify or supplicate these people so that then you can say-
CD: Right, right.
NPS: “Well, look, we do have a black President, so what are you complaining about?”
CD: Right, right.
NPS: And that’s-
CD: Or we passed this law. Yeah. It’s sort of a gramscian thing, right, you know, that capitalism legitimates itself by being able to say, well, hey, what do you got against us? Look at how much, you know, we can turn on the TV now and see black anchors and women in high positions and, you know, one wants to celebrate some of that, but when you recognize that oh, the wealth gap by blacks and whites has gone ten times up, you know, in the period after Obama, and-
NPS: Right, right, during the housing crisis.
CD: Same with women and, I mean, you recognize there’s something really, really wrong there and that it’s delicate to talk about, particularly if you’re a white male, and I’m sensitive to that, but it’s something that is just essential for people to think about and to organize around, and that’s really this book, Welcome to the Revolution, it’s really why I brought in a lot of different voices of people who were from these different communities but recognized that labor and economic, systemic, and political economy sorts of questions were central to all the, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or socialist, feminist, and so forth, these are issues that the hopeful thing is that I think more people in these identity movements are recognizing the importance of intersectionality and the intertwining of race, class, and gender and so forth and the need for organizing on the ground to have this kind of wider angle of vision.
NPS: Seeing and understanding, being able to perceive the common ground that they have and that the game is already rigged, the power elites from the very beginning, pre-capitalists and post-capitalists, whatever capitalists really means, it’s really state-driven capitalism, but it’s-
CD: Right, right.
NPS: But nonetheless, the corporate masters have tried to divide people, have said, “Oh, well, you’re Italian, you don’t want to hang out with the Irish, and oh, we don’t want black and white farmers to join forces.” It’s kind of astonishing when you think about the Farmers’ Alliance being formed in Texas.
CD: That’s right.
NPS: The first farmer’s union.
CD: Kansas, yeah. Right, right.
NPS: My grandparents on my father’s side were farmers in North Dakota and they settled there, and it was interesting to talk to my grandfather before he died. Of course he had some really crazy, far out there evangelical views. He was so extreme that no church was good enough for him, that he knew better than all of them.
CD: Wow, wow.
NPS: But it was funny that we could talk about far right policies. He didn’t know I was gay, by the way, that would not have gone over well. But when it came to the state swooping in and supporting farmers if their harvest didn’t go well, or in his little community, the community actually keeping the café open even though it couldn’t make enough profits to justify itself under the economic system, all of that made perfect sense. It was very interesting.
CD: Right, right, right.
NPS: I like my slice of what the government does for me, but you shouldn’t get a slice. And that’s definitely what the top one permill, I want that word to catch on, because it’s the correct term, the top one tenth of one percent of Americans you talk about in Sociopathic Society that they rely more on the infrastructure of the government than any of us. They-
CD: Absolutely. Corporate welfare is the only real welfare in America. You know?
NPS: Yeah, the rest is like dirty pennies in the couch.
CD: Absolutely, it’s chump change, yeah.
NPS: That no one cares, no one should care about, but it keeps being trotted out as this huge issue. Oh my goodness, there’s a black woman who gets her nails done and she’s on welfare.
CD: Exactly, exactly.
NPS: How dare she be entitled to any decent survival?
NPS: Goodness gracious, we could go on forever. This is really good. I’m really enjoying this. I hope you are.
CD: Good, I absolutely am. Well, it’s really, really important. I mean, the issues we’re talking about are so central. I mean, one thing I wanted to add was, returning to the sort of fascist tide around the world with Trump and so forth. These kind of siloed kinds of left politics are not only dangerous to the left because they divide the left and keep people from focusing on some of the systemic things that are so central to all these kinds of hierarchies of oppression, but they’re also the things that open the floodgates to the Trumpists of the world and the sort of fascists of the world, because the white working classes, I just wrote a new book, it’s coming out in December, actually.
CD: So, just in a couple months, called-
NPS: You know you’re adding, you’re making my reading list heavier and heavier. Thank you very much, it’s already got lots of books on it.
CD: Yeah, I should apologize for that.
NPS: No, not at all.
CD: Anyway, just to add to the weight, this new book, which is called Moving Beyond Fear, and it’s subtitled Upending the Security Stories of Capitalism, Fascism, and Democracy, and what I try to show in there is that when capitalism moves into periods of extreme crisis, this is a gramscian analysis, but that the traditional legitimation stories of capitalism, which is the American dream that everybody works hard to get ahead, and so if you think of capitalism as a sort of upstairs, downstairs house, people on the downstairs accept because they think the stairways going from the downstairs to the upstairs are wide enough that anybody who tries can try hard can make it up there and live very well. But when those stairways are clearly declining, the people upstairs, the elites have got to figure out a way to keep people in line and keep them believing in the house and the architecture of the house. So actually as I reach back into pre-capitalist kinds of stories around security and fear where if you looked at the nobility and the aristocracy and the serfs in, say, the feudal era, there was never any chance of mobility so they built this idea of, you know, sort of chain of being based on God and security where the people on top simply were destined to be there for the well-being and protection against terrible threats and fears. In the Middle Ages there were these devils lurking everywhere, whether it’s disease or Satan or whatever, and the lords of the manor were there to prevent them, so I kind of look at the evolution of modern national security ideas from even these pre-capitalist things as sort of a basic form of capitalist legitimation and then, when things went really bad, this sort of fear-based enemy manufacturing, I know Noam has written a huge amount about this, but it’s really central to fascism, because capitalism can easily devolve into fascism when the economic situation is bad enough and when the elites are desperate enough that they’re willing to do what the Republican party has done, which is basically throw its lot in with these ultra nationalist sort of alt-right groups, which are based on sort of very authoritarian and-
CD: … divisions, the divisions of people. You have to divide people down within the downstairs, and you divide them as enemies of the people and people who are totally catastrophically dangerous to allow, so I said people with fear about that’s being generated from their lack of economic and social well-being are being told and come to believe that, well, it’s these people who are really enemies of the people, whether it’s black people or gay people or immigrants or whoever it is, and you know, they say it was that thing, it was that kind of model, in this book, I go into a lot of Hitler’s talk about immigrants and Jews and gay people and so forth, who used exactly this kind of legitimation politics to draw people from the Weimar Republic into serious fascism. So it’s a really, this is not just abstract kind of theorizing about the left in America right now. It’s something-
NPS: It’s real.
CD: … that’s really embedded in the history of some of the most scary things that we can contemplate and so that’s why I think the things we’ve been talking about, about the way the left is structured, or the group that likes to think about itself as left. And again, I don’t mean to be that in a sanctimonious or punitive way, because I really appreciate any kind of activism on the progressive side that people are willing to do, people who have hard lives and it’s hard to-
NPS: Well, some forms of it are going to be more effective and some people are going to be-
NPS: … more heavily burdened because of the system.
NPS: There was something else along … oh, yes. The other thing I wanted to add in the vein of thought of what you were talking about with respect to security, and I’m very interested to see your book, is this interesting transitioning from divine intervention justifying the existence of the elites, the monarchs, the aristocracy-
CD: Right, right, right.
NPS: … to it becoming the holy market.
CD: Yeah, that’s an interesting transition, that’s right. Because, you know, in the middle ages, this sort of division between the aristocracy, the nobility, really we’re seeing is that a literally different blood. Blue blood you know, sort of godly and inspired nobility. It then becomes capitalism, you know, the feudal lords had a lot of contempt for the early merchants who would become the capitalists, but eventually, history evolved in ways that these merchants developed enough capital and enough power, but they always envied the kind of divine legitimacy, you know, the godly legitimacy of their older brothers who were, you know, the people who remained on the land and so forth, even as they were declining economically. And they always, I’m doing another book with my co-author called Glorious Causes, something about why people vote against their own interests, or act against their own interest, and it’s that same argument that, you know, what we’re seeing here is that an ancient historical force that you can see through centuries and centuries of human history where you know, it’s like you said, elites constantly need to re-legitimate their system with these very ancient views that god or nature have somehow constructed them as natural and godly and the way in which morality is maintained.
NPS: There was this fabulous quote that you have in Sociopathic Society about John D. Rockefeller. I don’t have the exact quote.
CD: Yeah, “God gave me-“
NPS: Yeah, exactly, that’s God and Darwinism combined in one statement about why he has his wealth. I thought that was a fantastic quote.
CD: Yeah, and that Godly thing, you know, you go back … have you been to Newport where they, you know, the nineteenth century robber barons, the first real American capitalists of any great consequence, they built their summer homes and they literally brought over the castles from European nobility. Capitalism itself can never really inspire the kind of moral and spiritual meaning that the aristocracy in pre-capitalist societies was able to provide, because it’s hard to get people completely morally inspired by the idea of just making a lot, being money grubbers and being successful about it. And so I think there’s always been a need in capitalism to sort of move into these areas of pre-capitalist religious and spiritual kinds of legitimation and then you see that in, you know, Hitler was very much of a moralist and a spiritualist in talking about godly, I mean, to read Hitler is to think that you’re listening to a preacher, you know, because he’s talking about moral degeneration and his whole argument was, you know, he was happy to rely on capitalists, corporations from America to rebuild his military and military Keynesianism and so forth, but his core argument was really moral and spiritual, and I think it reflects the fact that capitalism is inherently challenged to create ideas that can, particularly given the tendencies of capitalism to-
NPS: It’s amoral.
CD: … push people down in the system. It’s amoral and it doesn’t deliver on the money-grubbing materialist sides of it, so it has to go towards these more spiritual, more elevated form.
Piketty, Rentiers, Gladiator Technocrats, and State-Sponsored High Tech
CD: And you know, the economy ends up, this is the virtue I think of the work of Thomas Piketty, which I’m sure you’ve come across.
NPS: Oh sure.
CD: The French economist who really writes that-
NPS: That’s in my notes to talk to you about that, so, yeah.
CD: Yeah, I did a little book which I talked to him about, which is really a sort of exposition, a sort of “Reader’s Digest” view [Disinherited Majority], you know, sort of a simple view that people don’t want to read 800 pages of economic history. But, you know, his analysis–
NPS: It’s a hard book.
CD: Because really the capitalist … it’s a hard book to read, but it’s really interesting and it’s, one, because he writes a lot about history and he writes about the kind of culture of capitalist elite and he writes that-
NPS: It’s very well written, the translation.
CD: Yeah, very well written.
NPS: I love it.
CD: And he writes about how the capitalist elites always, back in England and much of Europe in the last three centuries, have always had this kind of aristocratic tendency, not only in their need to ape, to sort of emulate and claim blue blood, you know, glory of the kind that the feudal warrior class and nobility had, but they were basically ended up being rentiers, you know, where they basically made their money off of inherited wealth, and wealth was increasingly inherited as we see today, and Trump being a perfect example of a guy who was sort of buying into the, you know, trying to publicly promote the myth of walking and working your way up the stairs, but the guy we now know inherited, what, half a billion dollars, $423 million from his dad.
NPS: Yeah, he’s a phony. A phony.
CD: Yeah. And he didn’t work hard for his money.
CD: In fact, we now know that he had taken what he inherited and simply had put it in a savings account, he would have more money than he has today, although we don’t know exactly how much he has, we know that he would have had a lot more money if he had just put it in the bank. So the guy is, in a way, a feudal lord who just inherited his money. We haven’t inherited an aristocratic class, which claims itself as a innovative, technologically advanced, and there’s just enough technological innovation where you know this from the world you work in that again, capitalism is fluid enough and you know, complex enough that you can make these arguments with some level of credibility. I don’t mean the Trump argument so much, but these broader arguments we’re talking about, about working hard and creative innovation and so forth, particularly in a high tech economy in ways.
NPS: In my social … I was just going to mention, insert into that, what I see on LinkedIn is this gladiator worship, the technocrats, my fellow technologists, technocrats, they worship these sort of proto-sociopathic magnates like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg. Like, they can do no wrong because they’re so brilliant that they created all of this wealth. I can speak to Jeff Bezos more directly because I worked at that company. I would say that there certainly are very sociopathic tendencies at work across that entire company, but these people are-
CD: Oh, absolutely.
NPS: These are people are put up on a pillar as something to be worshiped and emulated.
CD: You know, this is an idea, as I listen to you talk about this, this is, you have a particular perch, so to speak, in which to really talk about this. It’s really important, and you know, just intuitively, I don’t know the world internally the way you do, but, I mean, this world of high-tech business and culture, but it just sounds really right to me, and it really is, it’s really important, because you know, capitalism is evolving in this direction, so Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, these corporations are the dominant corporations increasingly, and they’re very much embodying this new model of kind of, well, of everything we’re talking about, right, of creating a really sociopathic kind of capitalism in the name of technological progress and general social well-being and so forth. And there’s just enough virtue and fun that comes from computers and all the electronic technology that we have that it becomes one of the guiding legitimating forces of a very sociopathic system, you know. So I think-
NPS: Without the historical context of the state actually creating, at least germinating all of this technology.
CD: That’s right, that’s right.
NPS: Then it later is taken on by private enterprise, like the internet was pretty much given over to private enterprise in the mid 90s after 50 years, really 60 years of at least thinking about it in the state circles.
CD: Well, you know, this is one of Noam’s big, I’m sure you probably got to know Noam that way, because working at MIT and seeing the way in which the state was funding so much of the technology in the Defense Department and that eventually would lead into the high tech revolution. That really became, you know, Noam has always called the Pentagon the sort of backdoor socialism of American capitalism.
NPS: It absolutely is, yeah. I ask people, fellow technologists, and people who are skeptical of the kinds of things you and I’ve been discussing for the last hour. I ask them the question, what would happen in the 1930s if somebody came into a corporate board room and said, “Give me $250 billion and in 70 years, I’ll give you $10 trillion.” The numbers may be off somewhat, but it sort of captures the spirit of it. They would have kicked his ass out. They would have said, “Hell no, we don’t want that kind of long term risk,” even if you can almost guarantee that there’s going to be this huge turnaround. Technology wouldn’t happen within a true capitalist system if we’d ever had one, this sort of laissez-faire imaginings of people who are trying toretrofit the history to say this is why we are great, and therefore invest all of our energy into emulating people like Musk and Bezos and Zuckerberg, which, I’m sure they’re actually aware of this, because they have to deal with the government at the highest levels just because of the way that their corporations are so intricately intertwined now with AWS at Amazon and Azure at Microsoft competing for government contracts to manage the cloud. But the people are taken aback by that.
CD: Yeah, and you know, this high tech stuff, I just wanted to say again to validate the importance of your ability to speak to the high tech, the Bezos, you know, high tech-
CD: … model of worship, I mean, it’s really infected the university.
CD: So I see students every day who, you know, who they’re, you know, if you looked like at a place like where I teach at Boston College, there’s just a massive, you know, migration of students from the liberal arts into the business schools, and they go into finance and technology, and they really do worship these people that you’re talking about, and they see this as a model of what their life will look, and these are people who are very oriented toward identity politics. You know, they’re a generation that is very open to-
NPS: Socially liberal, yeah.
CD: Socially liberal on all the socially liberal, you know, I can check off whether it’s racial diversity or you know, gender-
NPS: Marriage equality.
CD: … transgender acceptance and all that stuff and they really mean it, but on the other hand, they become completely … this is the danger of the kind of, quote, left politics that we talked about, or liberal politics, both where the socially liberal mentions of it get divorced from the systemic, you know, power and control.
NPS: Which I saw firsthand working for corporate Uber and working for corporate Amazon, so it … at corporate Amazon, I traveled to the UK and I traveled to California to tour delivery stations and go on last mile rides to just sort of get a feel for what the drivers on the ground are having to deal with, and as you might imagine, they are considered contractors. They’re not employees.
CD: Right, right, yes, I know.
NPS: Although there’s no National Labor Relations Board in the UK, but they have their equivalents over there. They are pretty much serving at the pleasure of the delivery stations that hire them. They don’t have any opportunity to unionize, the pay is terrible. They are held to standards that literally will cause them to have auto accidents because they have to go so fast to get everything delivered. You see similar happenings at Uber. When I was flying back and forth from Seattle to San Francisco working at corporate Uber, I was doing that every week. I can’t believe that I did it. My husband told me that it was terrible idea but I did it anyway. I had nothing else to do when I was down there except work, and if you stayed in the office past 10:00 PM, they would give you a free Uber ride home. So I could order Uber Black, which is the limousine, you know, it’s really just a black SUV. I got to know over 70, seven zero, Uber drivers in the course of that whole enterprise, and this is real conversational narcissism, what I’m about to say, because I’m really proud of this. With almost every one of them, I would keep them an extended period of time talking to them about American history, particularly the labor movements, and why the only thing that will work that will lift their standard of living, because I saw people whose wages dropped 30% over a period of 18 months, and this is their full time job, they have no labor protection because they’re contractors. I explained to them exactly what has worked in American history and they were enraptured. They were mesmerized because they’d never heard any of these things. They’ve not heard these aspects of American history. I also told them, you know, the truth is, I could be fired for telling you these things, because corporate Uber is not going to be happy for me to tell those things to drivers, basically.
CD: So, so true, you know, and I shop at a local Whole Foods, which as you know has been taken over by Amazon, and I’ve been asking the people there what the new management is like and what it’s like for them as workers there. It’s a pretty sad story. You know, and you read about the warehouses, Amazon ware- It’s a pretty sad story. Now, when you read about the warehouses, and then the warehouses, regrettably, how unsafe they are.
NPS: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen them, and it is terrible.
CD: I’ve never been in them but it seems just awful. And then what I did, I talk to these people on the know when I go shopping and looking for whole foods. They say that both the way the food is sourced, the way their work schedules, and so forth have taken on notable slide since Bezos took over whole foods. And I wasn’t that enchanted with his predecessor, although he kept talking about conscious capitalism and so forth.
NPS: Right. Right.
Globalist Worker Exploitation and “Immoral Morality”
CD: So, yeah. So, I think, this discussion of way in which high-tech capitalism is shaping the toxic sociopathic forces with this. Another idea that you might … not to lay on you all these books–
NPS: That’s all right.
CD: I also wrote a book called Morality Wars which talks about the ideas of immoral moralities. It’s sort of the core concept. The idea is sort of this, that the more toxic the actual behavior that any particular institution takes on, the more likely it is that they will turn to morally, or spiritually, or religiously oriented high levels of moral discourse. Well, pretty much, a linear correlation between the sociopathy of the behavior and the elevated morality, how elevated it is of this person that justifies it.
NPS: Sure. Yeah.
CD: And I sort of look at everything. Look at empires from the Roman Empire to fascism, all examples of incredibly, if you look at fascism, incredibly barbaric systems which were studiously legitimated under the most moral and spiritual. And, of course, slavery was often done in that way and, I mean, if you look-
NPS: Oh, yeah. They said they had to have slavery. They told northern industrialists, “Well, you don’t support your black workers.”
CD: Right. Yeah. They said, “You have wage slavery. We have a kind of welfare state for these people.”
NPS: And that’s a similar argument that remains in place to justify this state-driven, high-tech capitalism. That if you don’t do this then poor people won’t have jobs.
CD: Right. Well, on high tech, I’m focusing on this because it’s where you’re located. And I think it’s incredibly important because I noticed in the university, like I said before, that I think, even among the more socially liberal parts of the younger generation, the high-tech miracle, so to speak, is really what is a vast part of the new legitimating element of capitalism. People believe in the technology. Their lives have been changed by computers, and iPhones, and so forth. And that’s had a huge impact on the way they think about the world. And it makes them believe that capitalism can really, because I teach courses on capitalism, that they go back to these high-tech world as a way of believing that capitalism can produce miracles and-
CD: … moral giants like Jeff Bezos. Yeah. And it also does produce new contradictions because the high tech world, it produces a lot of creative stuff. And there is this tension within capitalism itself between sort of more cosmopolitan features of capitalism, which required a certain amount of critical thinking and scientific, innovative kind of discourse or way of understanding the world, and the more traditional forms of capitalism in their sort of core structures of capitalism, which are rooted in these primal, brutal forms of power. So I think the high-tech world really gives this kind of special, post-modern, 21st century kind of legitimacy to these ruling forms of oppression and hierarchy and stuff.
NPS: And it was covered on Democracy Now, and my uncle told me it was covered on CNN. I don’t watch anything other that what I … I read things online, and I listen to Democracy Now, and that’s about it for news. You get more out of Democracy Now in ten minutes than you do CNN in 24 hours.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: But just to add another story to that, I remember – actually, it’s two different stories, but it’s basically the same idea – talking to some of the younger people that worked on my team and my sister team when I was in Amazon with last mile logistics. They were unaware that there are schools in this country that don’t have power, or places where you can’t drink the water, or the kids don’t have enough textbooks to go around and the textbooks are from the 1970s. They couldn’t believe that because that’s not what they’ve been taught. If they’re from a different country, it’s not really necessarily what they’ve been taught about America, at least the high-tech vision of what America looks like. They also were completely unaware of a story that I saw on Democracy Now in which during one of the heatwaves that we had in the last couple of years, it must have been maybe five or six years ago now, in Pennsylvania, one of their fulfillment centers, they didn’t have air conditioning because you don’t need air conditioning up there a lot of the time from what I understand. I know we don’t need it in Seattle. But, in any case, they were experiencing this heatwave so the fulfillment center was just overbearing and terribly hot. And they didn’t want to open up the big doors that are used for freight transportation of goods because they were afraid the employees would steal from them.
NPS: One of the experiences that I had in visiting the fulfillment center, it is like a damn prison. Getting in and out of there, if there were a fire, you’d die because just getting out is almost impossible.
CD: That’s very interesting and very, very believable. Yeah.
NPS: So what they decided to do was ask the city to send ambulances that just circled the fulfillment center for people as employees would have heatstroke’s.
NPS: I mean, you can’t make this shit up it’s so bad. And I was explaining it to my coworkers and they, of course, didn’t disbelieve me because they liked listening to me talk about history and various things that I would try to mix into the work that we were doing. But they couldn’t believe that Jeff Bezos, or his surrogates, or representatives would ever agree to such a thing because it’s so egregiously evil. And I explained, no. This is across the board. These wonderful, liberal, high-tech companies are engaged in horrific labor practices overseas, not to mention the ones that they’re doing in the United States. But it’s nothing compared to what’s going on in Africa and China and India.
CD: Right. Right. No, you’re so right. And it’s certainly my understanding of these places, although, I’ve had less direct experience with them. But it is, though, the contrast between the sort of glamorous and moralistic imagery of Amazon. It’s really kind of third-world, capitalist enterprise in a way. I mean, kind of like a sweatshop because I have been in a lot of, in Asia and Africa, I’ve been in…
NPS: True sweatshops.
CD: Sweatshops, fulfillment centers of which just exactly, when you were talking, remind of what I saw in, say, Thailand or those kinds of places.
CD: This was about seven or eight years ago, but I went on a variety of tours of various kinds of western sweatshop, sneaker shops, but these were not high-tech places, per se. But they had the sort of sense of prison, and yet of being morally save because they were taking young women who were going to be, otherwise, brutalized on a farm. And, I mean, they were working in better conditions than they were before these companies came in and on the wall, in English, they would have in some of the Nike centers or whatever, Reebok centers, they would have corporate codes of conduct written in English that nobody could understand. And at the same time, I was able to talk to the workers and these young women were working in locked areas, which where there were fires meant many of them could die. Where you’ve heard on Bangladesh–
NPS: Oh, yeah.
CD: And where they would work 20 hours. Depending on the season, they would work 20 hours and sleep under their sowing machines and that sort of thing.
NPS: Oh, my God.
CD: So, yeah. I don’t know if you know Charlie Kernaghan, and the work he did, [though] he’s not doing this work anymore because of health reasons. But for many years he was the primary sort of presenter to the western audience. And he would bring these workers over. I remember, because I was friends with Kernaghan and his partner, they would bring in from, say, Bangladesh these young women who were 17, 18 working in these American Disney cap or tee shirt sort of back sweatshops or whatever. And these girls, who were the same age as my students who are 18, 19. And they were talking about what their life was like, and how they were going to die at 30. And they were working 20 hours a day, and they wouldn’t have enough money to pay for a coffin because of the health conditions in the shop. And it just brought tears to these female students who were looking at them, the same age, and sort of wondering why am I who I am.
Luck Can Demand Responsibility : Hope in High Tech?
CD: Yeah. And how awful it was because the sweatshop workers were so … They weren’t exaggerating or in anyway asking for anything but people to listen or understand what their lives were like. It was very compelling.
NPS: Yeah. I’ve often thought … And in recent years, this has definitely been true. I mean, except in the last year because I’ve had some really bad health crises that have come up. But certainly, before this, I read about these things. It’s hard to watch video of these things. But I read about them. And part of the reason I read about them is not only to inform my actions and help me be a better citizen and try to work on these issues, but also, the gratitude that one can get from realizing that despite the fact … and I’ve told you in some of our email correspondence before this about the bullying that I experienced earlier in life, and there were a lot of things that I wish had been different. But my God, the life that I’ve had, it is literally like winning the lottery multiple times over to have been born in late 20th century America, and be white, and I’m tall.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: And I’m also … I was good student and I was compliant. And those two things together are the reason that I’m sitting here talking to you now.
CD: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
NPS: And I didn’t do anything to deserve those things. I’ve done nothing. There’s no … I don’t even believe that there’s some divine reason that I’ve been given these things. It is, literally, the roll of the cosmic dice. And I feel like that should be a call to action.
CD: Right. Well, you know, Noam’s view of social activism is really a form of education. And as you act, you educate yourself and you educate others. And, yeah. I think your story is very … I think you can attract and impact a large community by the particular nature of your experiences. And you’re an articulate guy as I’m listening to you.
NPS: I appreciate that.
CD: And I think you shouldn’t underestimate the way that your voice can make a difference.
NPS: I certainly believe that those of us who work in high tech have a degree of priv… We’re actually the last vestiges of the middle class in the neoliberal era. So, therefore, these people actually do have power. The people who work at Google and can walk out, they have power.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: They can force corporate leadership at this gigantic, perhaps one of the most significant corporations that’s existed. They can sway leadership just by joining hands together and saying, “We’re not gonna work today.”
CD: Have you seen much of that? I mean, have you seen any emerging high tech sorts of activism that strike you as promising?
NPS: Well, certainly. I mentioned earlier George Polisner and his building of the social network product.
CD: Yeah, no. I know George. I was in touch with him 10 or 15 years ago. Yeah. I haven’t talked to him for a while but, yeah.
NPS: His work is really interesting. I actually did my first of these interviews was with him, and you’re number two. Yeah. He and I been chatting for quite a while because I discovered him on LinkedIn and saw his very public resignation from Oracle. So I saw that online, so I reached out to him. He resigned because Safra Catz, the CEO of Oracle, agreed to be part of Trump’s either transition team or-
CD: Oh, that’s right. Yes. Yes. I remember.
NPS: And so we started chatting and he was explaining to me some of the people that he’s known through the years through the work that he does. Not the activism but the actual high-tech work. So that is certainly something that gives me hope.
CD: Yeah. Yeah.
NPS: As far as the kind of organization that I would really like to see, and this doesn’t exist as far as I know, is a real union for technologist or a union for data science.
CD: Exactly. That’s funny that you’d say that because I was just thinking that there’s-
NPS: That’s precisely-
CD: … a terrible importance of getting because there would be a real potential. I mean, the laborism is strongest among professionals and among … What’s left of the labor movement is in the public sector and in professions. So as much as those groups are problematic in some ways, they are doing a lot of the organizing and, whether it’s nurses or teachers or scientists or whatever. I mean, that’s where a lot of the labor … So, I mean, I think they … it must be a right period now, given the conditions that we were talking about, for labor to get a foothold in. And I’ll say that, in a sense, that would be the new, new deal would be trying to find the way to get, given the conditions of work on these huge, glamorous, high-tech companies, a labor movement addressing the issues you’ve been talking about would be really powerful, I think. The time is right, you know what I mean?
NPS: This has been awesome, and I can’t thank you enough.
CD: I’m glad you feel that way. Its been really nice talking to you and-
NPS: Your works are very powerful. And the way that you bring together, it’s the homogenization, the universalizing and all the this spirit that there’s more or less leaves on the tree and bringing it back together towards the trunk of the tree. It’s very powerful. So I want to-
CD: Thank you, Neil. I really appreciate you saying that. I’m really happy to hear it. And that’s very affirming because I spend so much time doing this stuff.
CD: And whenever I get affirmation, it kind of really feels good. So let’s stay in touch. I’m really happy to meet you and talk to you. I think we’re very much in the same spirit and so forth.
NPS: Sure. Yeah.
CD: I’ve been really thinking about projects I can imagine you’re doing in the high tech domain that we talked about that our work of organizing on the ground. And maybe in terms of book-writing and so forth.
NPS: Yes. Absolutely. A dream come true. So thank you Professor Derber for all the work you’ve done.
CD: Terrific. Well, thanks for your work. And call me Charlie. And we’ll stay in touch Neil.
NPS: All right, Charlie.
NPS: Awesome. All right.
NPS: You take care.
CD: Thanks for talking. Take care of yourself. I hope your health conditions go well. And I look forward to talking to you next time.
After a lengthy health sabbatical, I’m returning to blogging all things activism. Though I’ve mostly recovered, the world remains imperiled by runaway climate change, nuclear proliferation, imperialism, racism, violence against women and people of color, and the rest of the regulars in the twenty-first century. Though my progress is slow, great activists continue a great tradition of placing the human condition ahead of personal wealth, and often safety.
This is the first in what I hope will be a long tradition of discussions with activists. Below is a transcript and audio of my conversation with George Polisner. A special thank you is in order for George himself, as he kindly edited our transcript for clarity and ease.
NP Slagle: Thank you for listening to Scire Populum et Potentiam, To Know the People and Power. It’s my great pleasure to have George Polisner for the hour. George, the technologist has over a quarter of a century of experience managing and designing distributed systems, cloud services, QA and data products for various big names in high tech such as Dell and perhaps more infamously a director at Oracle. His impressive list of technical credits also include state and local initiatives as well as technology startup consulting as founder of Alonovo which we’ll talk about shortly. George, the activist is engaged in community organizing and media for a few years now and his impressive credits include the Lincoln County Democratic Central Committee in Oregon and hosting a regular program on community radio at KYAQ. Most recently, George founded civ.works, a social engagement platform designed to offer a privacy protective alternative to the for-profit social media and this is hot on the heels of a public resignation from Oracle, topics I’m very eager to explore. Welcome, George.
George Polisner: It’s a pleasure to be here, Neil.
NPS: I’d like to start with what it is that lead you to resign from Oracle, so maybe explain to listeners the genesis of that, what lead you to make that decision and what you plan to do going forward?
GP: That’s a good question. I remember after the election on November 8th, really being in shock I think with many of my progressive friends and …
NPS: We all were, yes.
GP: Yeah. It was a very dark period, but then when Oracle’s co-CEO, Safra Catz announced that she was going to work for the Trump transition team, I felt that while she was remaining active co-CEO at Oracle, and issued a statement that, “We are here to help the Trump administration,” I did not want to be included in that “we”. I did not want to normalize the kind of hateful rhetoric that was coming out of the campaign. The attacks on women, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ community, I could not take part in what Safra stated or I could not tolerate her position in remaining at Oracle while joining, what I saw as something that was just a hate-filled criminal enterprise.
NPS: Right. It certainly evokes the more recent wave of resignations we saw at Google over the drone programs that they’re engaging with respect to the federal government. Was there much internal discussion along these lines with some of your fellow coworkers and leaders in the company?
GP: There was really none. As a matter of fact, I read about Safra’s position in a paper. There was no internal communication about … Or formal issuing of a statement internally and so no, there just wasn’t really much talk. There had been some early concern. As a matter of fact with Trump’s stated desire to start a Muslim database, there was a Not in Our Name campaign and I was very proud to sign on to that and lend my name as an Oracle employee that we would not support any attempt to create what we saw as a database that could be used to eviscerate someone’s human and civil rights.
NPS: Yeah, absolutely. In my own experience at Microsoft, when they Muslim ban was first announced, this was a Muslim ban 1.0 which was a spectacular failure fortunately, it did cause a great deal of churn and upset in my organization because of course Microsoft is an international corporation and we have people from all over the world working there. It’s easy to see how that could be a very visceral concern for people who work in technology and have the interplay with all of these people from other countries. Seems like it is more than what Trump was trying to promote.
GP: It really should be. If we can’t learn from history and basically pointing out a class of people really othering them as they would say at the Haas Institute, that is something that I could not stand for and I think a lot of peers … It was interesting after I did issue my public resignation letter, I had many various supportive messages from all over the world including many Oracle people.
NPS: Right. This gets to the broader conversation that I want us to have about how to engage technologists. I find that it really is true and most of the companies where I’ve worked, I have found a pretty strong contingency of people who are sympathetic to a more liberal perspective of the world. A more liberal and global perspective but there is this concern about forfeiting one’s career and certainly I’ve been part of that also and it’s hard to know where that dividing line should be. When do you take the stand and when do you not because sometimes if you do take that stand, it can mean you won’t work in industry again. I suppose that’s part of the uphill battle that we’re dealing with.
GP: In some of the messages I received, people were supportive and that they admired my courage but they weren’t in a position where they could do what I did. I recognized that. I mean, I was fortunate, Neil to have been in this industry a long time and be in a point in my career where I was able to take this personal risk but I recognize it’s an individual and very personal decision. I mean, I was at a point in time in which my kids were through college. They were independent. I’d put them on the ‘quantitative easing’ dad economic program for sometime so they were standing on their own. I was just at a very different point in my life. I also recognized that the circumstances that we’re dealing with today … At the time when I left Oracle, they were theoretical. I mean, really we didn’t know what would happen or how bad things would be. I expected an assault across the entire spectrum of progressive issues. At the time, people were saying, “Shouldn’t you really be patient and see what’s going to happen?”
NPS: Yeah. That’s what I was going to mention. One of the very frustrating things that came out of that especially in what limited social media access I have that there’s a course to rabid collection of people who are very much so going to try to force their views on us and there’s a lot of savage activity that happens online but there is this contingency of people that I like to think of the way Martin Luther King described them, the white moderates. People who want us to test the waters incrementally and say, “Well, we really should be patient,” and like you were saying, “Wait and see what this man does because it may not be all that bad. Maybe he just lied in the campaign and that was just to get people spun up but he’s going to actually gravitate more towards the center.” We know that wasn’t true.
GP: Well, we certainly felt it wasn’t.
NPS: I’m married to a psychiatrist and so that gives me special dispensation that is not necessarily good dispensation inside in the personalities and what we’re dealing with is something that is very, very pathological.
GP: There’s no question. Dr. King also talked about ‘The Fierce Urgency Of Now’ over 50 years ago. In my mind, the now has never been more fierce.
NPS: Right. The now is always with us and I think that’s part of the realization that technologist in particular I’d like to reach. It reminds me of what Noam Chomsky says about dipping a toe in and really the currents are strong enough that if you dip a toe in, it’s probably gonna sweep your way. My first exposure to you was seeing your resignation letter that was posted on LinkedIn and I have to say I was so impressed and gratified at the same time to see somebody in this industry where we have immense power and influence much more so than trade folks in other industries. Seeing you take this stand very publicly was gratifying and incredible and I realized this is a man I need to get to know.
GP: It’s funny Neil because there’s a back story there. After I’d found out that Safra had joined the Trump transition team, my children had been visiting as they often did during their … They would try to visit in winter break when they were in college and then later on they would try to plan some time around the holidays to come out and we would play Catan, Risk, and Monopoly and all of these games. We were in the midst of this.
NPS: And rather metaphoric playing Risk and Monopoly.
GP: Yes, exactly. Probably fueling my fire but when I found that this had happened, I said, “This can’t stand with me. This aggression will not stand,” to quote The Big Lebowski. I wrote this letter over the weekend and so we were watching what was happening. It was really unexpected. We would see, “Gee, this is now been seen by 3,000 people.” We were looking at that going, “Well, gee, what if it reaches 10,000? This will really be amazing.” It went over 350,000 views and then got coverage from The Guardian. Olivia Solon who is a wonderful senior reporter over at The Guardian wrote a story about it. The New York Times followed with a story. It was completely unexpected. I was very happy that it could serve while many of us were really still in a state of shock that it was able to serve as an example of tangible things that we could do to not normalize the behavior of this administration.
NPS: Right. I can remember I was a little bit more fearful that he would be elected partially because I believed social desirability keeps people from stating what they really think. It’s like you encounter a person on the street and you ask him, “Are you a racist?” Well, what is he going to say? If he tells you he’s a racist, then you’ll know you’re dealing with an interesting person.
GP: We know what they’ll say now and they’ll say, “Make America great again.”
NPS: Yes, MAGA all the way. I can remember it certainly … Well, it was what motivated me to form this blog and start trying to basically establish a record, a written record of views and positions and source material that hopefully will be useful for people. I know certainly your works have been very useful for me, so far. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. I was listening to a couple of your talks in preparation for this interview and one of these talks was geared towards discussing Alonovo. I’d like to hear more about that and this notion of ethical advertising and ethical affinity. I found this to be a really interesting discussion so if you could share a few words about that.
GP: Oh, of course. During the Bush-Cheney years, in which so many people felt disenfranchised by government, I recognized along with many others that shaped my point of view really starting with John Kenneth Galbraith that there’s incredible power that’s untapped that we all share from an economic perspective and the socially responsible investing community had been started and had gained certain amount of momentum. People like Peter Kinder who founded KLD Research and Analytics which would guide institutional investors on social screens. In other words, which companies to invest in that aren’t doing as much harm instead of tobacco companies or defense manufacturers, weapons manufacturers.
GP: Exactly, coal. This work had been going on for a while. People like Peter, Amy Domini and others were really leading the charge. Other friends along the way like John Tepper Marlin and Alice Tepper Marlin really shaped a lot of my perspective but what I saw was there was a lot of guidance with respect to how we would invest capital but the majority of Americans are consumers as opposed to investors. I felt that there was a very large component that was missing from the socially responsible economic equation and so what I envisioned through Alonovo was providing a service to consumers that guided them towards which companies are doing less harm, which companies are evolving to mitigate their environmental impact that are managing their resources well, that are really truly adding value to society, that are treating their workforce well. In the classic case that I would talk about with respect to socially responsible consumption if that’s not oxymoron.It is like the Costco versus Walmart story. Costco has embraced organized labor. They treat their employees well. They’re well paid, they have great benefits and that’s one side of the case study. The other side of course is Walmart which is really an economic giant but they’re notorious in terms of trying to essentially erode any kind of organized labor and the treatment of their supply chain is horrific. When they’ve opened stores …
GP: Exactly. I mean, when they open a store, it usually means the death of the main street economy in a particular town. I look at that Costco versus Walmart example and then thought about Brave New Films and The High Cost of Low Prices and thought, you know something. If we use similar information that guides institutional investment but make it accessible to consumers, we can create demand affinity with companies that are doing the right thing. If we do this, then … I used to say hey, if we can make Dick Cheney a socially responsible investor without him having to know that he is, then we will have succeeded because if we create greater equity growth in companies who are doing the right thing, it’s going to create natural affinity for investment to follow those companies. I saw consumer demand was being a missing piece to … And why I felt that socially responsible investing have been really marginalized in terms of its impact. I got together with a group of people and put some of my money into Alonovo which was created as a service that sat as part of the Amazon shopping experience that would provide guidance, a simple grade as to whether this company was treating people well and treating the environment well and operating ethically.
GP: Then the ideas was to educate people so if they clicked on that grade, they could find out the attributes that make up what would be a more evolved socially responsible company. The ideas was to not only create this demand affinity but also educate people and make this decision ubiquitous as people would basically look at products or services in terms of not only brand reputation but also what kind of behaviors am I perpetuating when I spend my money on this particular company.
NPS: Yes. This is very important work and it very so much dovetails with this broader discussion of motivating technologists in particular. I’m guilty of this as much as anybody else of not being completely aware of the impact of all of my choices as a consumer. When I was doing research for one of my blog pieces on climate changes, I came across the works … Her name escapes me [Kari Marie Noorgard] but she’s a social scientist from Norway who wrote a book about the capacity for denial that we have around climate change. You can take me for instance. I feel like I want to be socially responsible but I also fly on planes all the time which means all my carbon footprint is much … It’s larger than a dinosaur’s footprint unfortunately because of this, and the point that she was making in these series of studies that she conducted is that it’s one thing to care about the issue and it’s another thing to know how to implement that and having this kind of service available would make it much easier and also believable for technologist. I worked with people at Amazon, some of them very good people. One guy in particular, very socially responsible and just all around a great guy, and I can remember chatting with him about the conditions of schools in the United States. He was floored when I told him that there are public schools in this country that don’t have power and don’t have water that the students can drink and don’t have enough textbooks. These are the kinds of things that are hiding in plain sight.
GP: That’s right.
NPS: Our consumer choices are related to this, and that by receiving these enormous tax breaks when we’re in the upper parts of the income spectrum, we don’t realize the huge price that’s being exacted on people in the lower couple of quintiles.
NPS: Even the name of it is condescending, “trickle.”
GP: Right. Exactly
NPS: Trickle, if we give anything to the lower income earners, it should be a trickle because that’s all they really deserve. There are lots of values that are tried into just the language. Which hearkens to George Lakoff’s work around metaphors in the way that we frame these issues in the first place.
GP: It may as well be trickled on as opposed trickle down.
NPS: Yes. That is great. I have not heard that. That is excellent. Definitely great stuff and I’d like to learn more in the days ahead about your work with Alonovo.
Salvage the Franchise While Evolving Beyond the Booth
GP: Oh, sure. As a matter of fact, Alonovo at the time, we were looking for money and looking for investment to really take it to the next level and there was another entity that attracted a couple of serious rounds of venture capital. GoodGuide which was founded and operated by a Berkeley professor – Dara O’Rourke and Dara and I got to know each other fairly well. GoodGuide was eventually purchased by Underwriter Laboratories. I still think that there’s an incredible opportunity to not only … When I think about civic engagement and we’ll talk about civ.works, I’m sure next. When I think about civic engagement a large part of that is economics. A large part of that isn’t just about attending a town hall meeting or registering a vote which are incredibly important or the act of voting itself but how we live our lives is an expression of civic engagement.
NPS: Good citizenship.
GP: We go shop at Walmart and Walmart then takes some of their money and lobbies, tries to elect candidates that are for school voucher programs and want to eviscerate public education. When people shop at WalMart their money is supporting the erosion of public schools. We need to understand as a society that our power goes beyond just our vote. It’s how we choose to live and the choices that we make have influence in our society.
NPS: Just wait to vote for somebody else which certainly was not what we heard when we had the Clinton scandals in 1998-99.
GP: Right. I suspect it’s even worse than that, Neil because I think that people are told either directly or indirectly why bother to vote? Both parties are inherently corrupt. Who cares? I think it’s not only really trying to marginalize people’s impact in the political and civic world but it’s also about disenfranchising people so that we end up with a very toxic government as we have today.
GP: It’s a science. If you know that your couple of points are going to make a difference between electing somebody like a known pedophile versus someone else, well, then you could play with voting machines, the placement of less voting machines in an area in which people are only given a very brief time to be away from work in order to vote. We’ll have lines for hours going out the door.
NPS: And always on a work day, never on a Saturday or a Sunday.
GP: That’s right, or vote by mail which is implemented in Oregon and has really been a phenomenal program. If we care about democracy, we should be demanding that people are automatically registered to vote. We should be demanding that it is easy as possible to vote not this garbage that people are taught by right-wing groups about the voter ID programs and doing these things to really try to disenfranchise people of color and impoverished that maybe don’t have the time to spend six hours at a DMV trying to get an ID to then spend four hours in line waiting to vote. To them such might make difference between paying the rent this month or being able to afford bus fare to get to their work. If we care about democracy, we should be making as easy as possible for people to vote.
NPS: Right, exactly. It certainly conjures this notion of what you see in dictatorships and in much more totalitarian regimes where the population generally because of sanctions are forced to starve and do without all basic necessities except for what they can get from the dictator. You see that on a … It’s certainly a different magnitude here but if it is the difference between you being able to pay your bills to go vote when you’re told your vote doesn’t matter anyway and chances are the candidate … The one of the two choices that you’re given probably won’t win anyway. It has a devastating effect in aggregate and I think that it is pretty clear to anybody who actually reads about these programs of voter suppression that the architects of these policies know very well the truth.
GP: That’s right, and it dates back to ALEC and a lot of the right wing think tanks like Heritage. I think we’re talking before about Paul Weyrich who said, “We don’t want people to vote.” When you think just about a couple of points of difference, it’s voter suppression voter caging. Other initiatives, it’s gerrymandering. It’s a electoral college that promotes a candidate getting more than three million more popular votes but losing the election. There are all kinds of ways in which the system is abused for the sake of the perpetuation of power by what we see right now.
NPS: Right. A very narrow ideological framework that we’re forced to endure. I suppose that there is no time like the present to talk about civ.works. I’m very interested in understanding what is the genesis of it? First of all, what is it, what does it do? What do you want it to do and why did you create it?
GP: Well, I had a stroke. You’ll have to ask one question at a time.
NPS: I’m very, very grateful that you’re still with us. Please don’t go anywhere, George. We really need you.
GP: I am taking care of myself under my daughters and son, and granddaughter’s orders, so I appreciate that, Neil. The genesis is before the election, Adam Lake, Golda Velez and I were having great discussions in the background and we were all working full-time at other entities but we’re having great background discussions about the corrupting influence of money in the American political system and we’re having discussions about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council which has brought these horrible voter suppression laws, open season on people of color laws, called Stand Your Ground, the right to work laws which are anything but …
GP: This is a horrible sinister organization that maybe people haven’t heard of. We started to think … I had spent a few years at the California State Legislative Counsel and Golda, Adam and I started thinking, “We need as we need a people’s ALEC,” or what we were calling a Smart ALEC at the time. We were thinking about databasing law and policy that people could use in their local jurisdiction, their state legislature or even on a federal level to promote policy and law that benefits the majority of people as opposed to just the Koch Brothers. As we have these discussions, we were continuing to design and develop and conceptualize the thought of an environment where this could all be readily available to people and then the election happened.
GP: When it did, we knew that … A couple of different things. We knew or felt that society was going to be assailed on just about every front. Every progressive front, any gain that was since the new deal would be under assault by this administration and this congress. We also felt that legislation if you look at a spectrum of civic action or civic engagement that people that can be involved in, working with legislation policy or running for office are probably the heaviest lifts there are. Asking somebody that’s already working hard, maybe working two jobs to make ends meet to get more involved in something like legislation, policy …
NPS: Take a five-year break off your career, right?
GP: And sell data. That was something that we absolutely didn’t want to do. We felt the privacy protection part was incredibly important to what we have been building. We conceptualized civ.works. I left Oracle, I think around … I think it December 20th or 21st, or something like that.
NPS: The shortest day of the year, pretty much.
GP: It was the shortest day and the longest day, I guess. In any event, we went from concept to launch in two -and-a-half months. We launched on February 14th in what we call … We launched for the love of democracy, so launching on Valentine’s Day was important. Then we continued to add features and functions that were critical to the model and so we added the ability to aggregate civic actions from organizations like NARAL, Moms Demand Action, and Color of Change, Fight for $15. All of these great organizations, the ACLU, that we’re doing phenomenal work in trying to protect society’s most vulnerable to this very toxic administration. We would aggregate these actions coming from all over the United States and then when people signed up on the platform we would understand their geolocation. They would provide their zip code, and so when we had an action that matched their issue affinity and their geography, we would then basically provide them with, “Hey, here’s something that you can do. Then when people would actually say, “Yes, I did this,” they get civic action points because we felt that it’s important to overtime reward behavior even though there isn’t any inherent value or cryptocurrency behind civic action points or ego points.
NPS: Then again people will play Farmville for 100 hours a week because they get new crops. If people really believe that what they’re doing is making a difference.
GP: Well, we want a new crop of candidates.
NPS: Exactly, yes.
GP: Policy and legislation. It’s like Farmville for democracy.
NPS: Right, exactly. It certainly is a very big step in the direction of overcoming the problem of stratification that happens in activist circles where you may be interested in one particular kind of cause and I may be interested in another but what we want is a lot more similar than the differences would tell.
GP: That is exactly right. I felt that … Beyond just the peer technology solution, we really looked at a lot of behavioral and organizing theory and I have long felt the progressive space tends to marginalize its impact by siloing itself or segmenting itself and the reality is from a systems perspective whether you’re trying to address climate change or you’re trying to address systemic poverty in our urban areas, if we’re not working together, that’s a problem. I understand. If you’re doing climate work, that’s incredibly important because without a livable climate, there’s nothing else to talk about but there’s no reason that we can’t have mechanisms that allow us to work together as a societal flash mob. That’s how we viewed the way we would like to build and continue to evolve the thought of civ.works or the civ.works concept is respecting local autonomy, your ability to work in your passion area but when we all need to come together and act together as a society, let’s act together.
GP: I’ve written a lot and I’ve probably angered some people and so sorry about that.
NPS: That’s what we do.
GP: I early on felt that civ.works must be about meaningful civic action and not all petitions are bad. I mean, I recognized that there is some value because they provide education and exposure. The things that were happening at Standing Rock for example were probably not gonna make the news but when 100,000 people were signing petitions and viewing this, that’s important. It’s important to raise visibility and awareness. What I talk about is when I get a study flood of petitions that say things like, “Paul Ryan just sneezed, sign my petition and chip in $5 now before he sneezes again.”
NPS: We need Kleenex available everywhere.
GP: That’s right. It’s a problem and it works … It’s a problem in multiple ways. One is somebody that wants to essentially have a political or civic impact things that they have, and so they do this collectivism thing, incredibly easy to click on this petition.
GP: That’s right. As opposed to actually doing something that’s effective and advancing or resisting or helping to protect vulnerable people. You’re just getting added to a mailing list and potentially being divested of a little bit of your cash. I just saw that as a huge problem. I met with entities that are actually a fairly large players in the petition space because I said, “Hey, here’s an opportunity.” I have no desire to build civ.works on my own. I always look at how can I collaborate? How can we get the resources that we need and act together and therefore accelerate our ability to be impactful? I met with people kind of what I would think of as the usual suspects that have been doing great work but most of it has been around petitions and I met with them and said … This was well before we actually launched civ.works. I would say, “You know something? There is a lot of anecdotal evidence. I haven’t funded real research or anything that’s peer reviewed but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are becoming sick of petitions. Now, I said we have an administration in which we know we’re going to be attacked on all fronts, so there’s going be an explosion of petition.
NPS: It’s a flood of petitions in my inbox.
GP: I was really met with the same reaction that you would get from the band, from Spinal Tap. It’s like our amplifier goes through 11. There was really … It’s like, “Oh, no. More people are signing more petitions now. It’s really going great.” No, it isn’t. It was an unfortunate experience in some ways but it also basically solidified my thought about just really going all in on civ.works and making the investment on my own and thinking that if you’re … When you understand what the right path is there is no toe in the water. If you’re not all in then you’re just part of the problem. I didn’t wanna be a white moderate … I wanted to embrace my more activist radical thinking about getting this done.
NPS: Right. It’s very much so is an honorable and needed cause. It’s interesting that while you were talking about this problem of petitions that it does remind me of the research I mentioned earlier where once we believe that we’ve made a difference in a certain regard like I can recycle the myriad aluminum cans waste that I produce because I drink so many diet sodas, there is this thought that I’m doing something for the environment that’s good but the problem and what she was finding is that we’re large either unaware of the rest of the impact that we have or somehow we’ve managed to push ourselves into denial.
GP: We didn’t push ourselves. Advertising, it plays a lot of that. We already don’t like to change our behaviors if we don’t have to and then when we … Advertising works. How many kids understand that a happy meal involves really a horrible situation for sentient beings being packaged up in fun little wrappers with a clown.
NPS: Yes. It’s really interesting because I do think that there is good scholarship around the psychology of petitions, the psychology of taking an action that you believe is good. What brought that to mind when I was listening to your discussions is this gamification. This mechanism by which you can tap into that in a benign way, more than benign, a good and productive way.
GP: Right. When I think about civ.works, there are activists that are gonna be engaged regardless. They don’t need civ.works. They may already belong to Indivisible or the National Organizations for Women or Color of Change or other great organizations that are doing amazing work. They’re gonna be active regardless but I have always viewed the issue with the center and even the center left and center right, the more you go towards this center, the more likely I think people need to have some reinforcement for the civic activities that they do. For the good that they do. We know that gamification works. We know that competition works. I’ve often thought wouldn’t be great to be able to take communities and say for example, “Gee, Rancho Cordova near Sacramento is all over this great activity. What’s wrong with you guys over in Elk Grove? You should be all over this to and so you can create natural competitions to cause and really incentivize behaviors that are ultimate gonna be great things for society.” That’s how I see this potentially being used in the future.
NPS: It is essentially anecdotal but I used to watch … What is it called? It’s Seth MacFarlane show. Family Guy. I would watch Family Guy which of course is just a perverse and hilarious comedy but it and The Simpsons and Futurama and these cartoons have a very negative message about activism. They are very, very, very critical of people organizing and protesting which you see that anywhere all over the news, particularly on Fox if you could even call that a news channel.
NPS: We can’t without laughing. It’s a joke. I found it was interesting in the years that I watched this show and my own awakening coming to recognition about what activism can actually do and what civic engagement really should really look like. Not that I embody it by any stretch of the imagination now but I understand what it needs to look like. Seeing that in this show, they go out of their way to criticize anybody who would do something like that. Anybody who steps out of their cast, essentially. We were talking about this before we turned the microphone on this notion that the cast system in this country very much follows the same pattern of thought, pattern of propaganda as what we had with the institution of slavery that we were told by the powers that be that this was the way God wanted the order of man to be that women are subjugated to their husbands and their fathers and that slaves are going to be slaves because of the mark of Cain or whatever nonsense that they came up with at the time. Now, we’re told that we shouldn’t act out of our economic stratum because the market wants us to be there. We shouldn’t want poor workers at McDonald’s to be paid minimum wage or to raise minimum wage because it’s not what the market demands. The market is now become this thing that we appeal to as a deity.
GP: That’s right. The market has become America’s religion and when I think about American culture, and I think that American culture right now is very diseased. Now, you look at all over the violence. We look at kids with guns. We look at everything that’s happening in society and it’s a price that we’re paying for essentially making the free market our religion where profits and the concentration of wealth and material things are valued more than nature and more than people, your neighbors, your communities.
NPS: Elderly widow across town who can’t afford medication has to choose between medication and food.
GP: Look at how retirees, retired teachers were vilified in Wisconsin by Scott Walker as being, “You horrible people are the ones that are ruining America.” It’s ridiculous. We are intentionally divided and conquered and so this idea of trying to break out of silos and segmentation and work together because that’s what really is required, Neil. I mean, when I look at the games that were made in the 1960s and 1970s, it was even before the word intersectionality was coined. It was the movements of civil rights, labor, the women’s movements and the peace movements coming together to basically challenge what is the American dream? It certainly wasn’t prosecuting more on popular wars in countries where we shouldn’t have been. It was not in the denigration of women. It was not in paying women 78 cents on the dollar or worse if you’re a woman of color. It’s not disenfranchising people of color from the vote. This is not our vision of America. Maybe some people’s vision of America where only wealthy white landowners have a vote and have a say in our direction, but we are divided and conquered and it was these groups of people coming together and saying, “You know something? We’re different but we’re fighting for the same dream.” That’s what’s required now and so that’s why in a virtualized way, we created this mechanism for people to actually work together whether they know that they are or not. We don’t care. We just want them working together because that’s what’s required.
NPS: One of the questions that I get a lot when I’m discussing these kinds of things with … I don’t know. For a lack of a better term, I would say lay people as far as people that don’t take a lot of time to try to understand history. This happens usually if I’m a Lyft or an Uber and I end up talking to the driver.
GP: Great discussions.
NPS: Even when I was working at Uber, I would tell them I needed to unionize. That probably wouldn’t made me very popular at work but they would ask the question what is it that we can do? The period of time that you’re describing in the 1960s and 1970s was monumental. A monumental shift in society and we saw something very similar in the 1890s and the early 1900s with the labor movements that were coming out of the industrial revolution and they actually managed to get some pretty powerful victories like having a forty-hour workweek as opposed to an eighty-hour workweek.
GP: We forget that a lot of those movements were paid for in blood and violence. Now …
NPS: Unusual amounts of violence for similar kinds of events if you look at other western democracies. Then we also saw something very similar in the early 1930s. In fact what we saw there is something that I really do wish workers in this country fully understood. I wish I could internalize this value and I guess if there’s one value that I would suggest to them above all others, it is the power of striking. We were talking about this before we turned the microphone on that we are literally one sit down strike away from deep profound societal transformation. In the early 1930s, the workers sat down on the job and that terrified the owners. It terrified those in power to the extent that we had a card carrying member of the New York elite, inherited wealth, the whole bit, Franklin Roosevelt as president becoming very sympathetic to these people out of which came the new deal.
GP: It’s economic empowerment in our collective ability when we’re not divided. As we were talking a little bit before, we started this. I know that a lot of progressive organizations in leadership talk about what do we do if Robert Mueller is fired? What if that investigation which is incredibly important to preserving a thread of our aspirations ofdemocracy, what do we do? There’s a lot of thought about well, if that happens, we go out into the streets and march. Well, there really needs to be some thought about an extended labor strike if that happens and it can’t be people pouring into the streets on a Thursday afternoon and then going back to work on Friday morning as if nothing had happened. If that happens, this is a very different America unless we all gather together in an action. When you’re dealing with a concentration of wealth as we are now among the Koch brothers and the Walton family, and the Mercer family, and the Sheldon Aldeson‘s. Then hitting them economically is the only place where it’s going to make them reconsider the fact that they have pushed American society over a threshold.
NPS: Right. The capacity to organize nowadays … Again, when I ask this question, I refer to these points in history where people organize in the industrial revolution or the aftermath you had news journals that were produced by localities and it was a very lively press that enabled them to quickly organize just using the printing press. Now, what we have is the capacity to communicate with anyone in this entire world pretty much almost instantaneously because of the internet which is another reason that I’m really excited about civ.works and the role that it can play. One thing I definitely want to get to before we run out of time is what are the needs for civ.works? We’ve discussed this before that there is a need and demand for software engineering support among other things. If you can talk about that a little bit, I wanna share those things with listeners and readers so that they will know what they can do to help?
GP: That’s a great question, Neil. The biggest challenge that we face isn’t the fact that there are resources available but the issue is we end up competing. We have campaigns with political campaigns and other work that’s going on. We’re really long-term infrastructure and so we’re not the cool building, apartment building or condo building that everybody wants to live in with great views. We’re the infrastructure, were the plumbing and the electrical grid. We tended not be very sexy and so if we’re competing with somebody like Doug Jones in a political [race], people want to expend their money in such a way that they feel that they’re having a tangible and direct impact on what’s happening right now. That’s still very important. I mean, the campaigns absolutely need funds. They need television airtime. Ronald Reagan made sure of that by eviscerating the fairness doctrine but for us, we do need money. We need resources, we need people to become active subscribers. What we’ve done, we didn’t want economics to be a barrier to use for civ.works and we struggled with how do we fund this and make this viable? We adopted a model very much like The Guardian newspaper. We didn’t want to have a pay wall and so we took away the pay wall but we do ask if people can afford to do it that they purchase monthly subscriptions for $3.99. That helps us immeasurably. That creates a foundation of revenue that we then use for operations, for new software development. There’s absolute things that we want to do. We want to have a native mobile platform available for civ.works to make it easier to use. We want to improve our core experience. There are certain very powerful functions and features that we to implement that are really waiting for the resources to get … I mean, we know what we want and we’re waiting for the financial or engineering resources to help us get there. Then once we do, once we have what we believe is a pretty well evolved set of features, functions, and mobile capability, we want to democratize development. This is the people’s social platform and so we want our subscribers to weigh in and say, “You know something? This would be a great … If we did this, let’s build this.” For us, it’s about resources whether it’s tax deductible donations as a 501(c)(3) organization. It’s about people that volunteer on the platform by helping us review and approve actions that we collect from all over the United States and really the world. There’s some talk about extending our capability. There’s been talk about using us in the UK.
GP: Some great discussions about potentially using this platform in Brazil. Anywhere, where we’re talking about how to organize people against the interest of organized, concentrated wealth. civ.works can be an effective mechanism in the tool chest of society, in the tool chest of the 99% to actually help rebalance power. Anyway, for us, it’s really about money and about engineering resources and then people that can actually be involved in the platform. We have created an environment. I would characterize it honestly in terms of a social platform. We’re nowhere near as good as Facebook in terms of features and functions but we haven’t had the hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in user experience.
NPS: Also, you’re not selling data to other malevolent actors.
GP: Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer not getting our data. Cambridge Analytica is not …
GP: That’s right. God help us, Peter Thiel. Anyway.
NPS: They make so many of us look bad. This is very, very exciting work and I think that is incredibly important and often times when I review LinkedIn profiles looking for recruiting opportunities just for my day job, I noticed that a lot of people are looking for ways to volunteer their time for causes they believe in. I think that this is something that might be of great utility if we can find the right people who have the right skills who want to donate the time. I know that I’m a believer and I want to donate my time.
GP: I’m very grateful, Neil. I know that you and others that have advocated and helped us evangelize the work that we’re doing inspire me. I mean, there are days … These are dark times. I haven’t drawn a paycheck for a year-and-a-half and it’s challenging. You wake up and something that’s very different from the America that we’re really taught about when we’re young. People like yourself inspire, and motivate, and keep us going on days when it’s very hard to keep going.
NPS: Well, certainly you do that for me, so thank you very, very much for this very enlightening and exciting hour, and also helping me pilot this series of interviews with activists. Thank you very much. I look forward to what we’re doing in the future.
GP: I’m always happy to be a beta test, Neil.
NPS: Thank you very much. I usually end up being a gamma, so there you go. All right. Thank you so much, George.
Returning to the issues of today has been overwhelming. Last year, I suffered a health crisis nearly taking my life. I’ve since returned to a better place, though I remain deficient. So many issues are current and pressing, and it’s difficult to know where to begin. The separation of children from their parents by Trump’s border gestapo seems in need of triage, though Trump seems to have understood that harming children isn’t a reasonable means of coercing cooperation from Democrats on the wall funding. We could examine a myriad of issues, including North Korea, DuPont’s coverup of the dangers of teflon, Scott Pruitt’s $43K phone booth, the ongoing Mueller investigation and Trump’s repeated witness tampering, and so on. But instead, I’d like to talk briefly about a journey I made recently.
To support my best friend during a difficult loss, I returned to my hometown of Gainesville this past month. Cathartic and lengthy, my visit permitted time to get a good look at how the city of my youth has changed in the eighteen years since I lived there, along with a reunification with my college history professor, Pat Ledbetter, faculty at North Central Texas College (NCTC), and my high school calculus instructor, E. Clyde Yeatts. It just so happens that my twenty year class reunion transpired during the time I was there, as well as a town hall by Beto O’Rourke, Democratic representative from El Paso, and most recently candidate for the upcoming U.S. Senate election, pitting him against Ted Cruz. I attended the latter, eschewing the former. The town hall was lively and energized, though a fair amount of shallow, rally-around-the-flag banter and gladiator hero worship persisted. I did manage to query Beto on economic issues during the question and answer, available around 50:00 or so in his recorded version. The issues raised there, along with the drawn, sober look at my city of origin, are topical of this post.
Beto, Piketty, and Income Inequality
My question specifically asked about the approach one might take in addressing income inequality, something we all understand, at least in the first order. I referenced Thomas Piketty, the eminent French economist with rather dire predictions for industrialized nations with respect to the current balance of rents and labor. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, he describes an economic dystopia in which the super-wealthy need not invest in labor, as the return-on-investment (ROI) for capital exceeds that of material investment. Put more simply, money by itself makes more money than any kind of investment benefiting the apocryphal middle class, so investing in manufacturing, science, health care, and so on, simply isn’t as lucrative as investing in real estate, credit cards, and the like. Piketty describes this as a grim portent of political instability, as a larger and larger share of household wealth becomes inherited. Once all capital is owned and controlled by heirs, the extreme poverty imposed on working class and indigent people reaches a breaking point. It’s worth considering that fact for a moment.
The Role of Public Relations
Since the dawn of the public relations industry, sociologist Anne M. Cronin suggests that we’ve been told rather feverishly that occult forces, be it God, the market, patriotism, and so on require that we accept the station to which a would-be wizened corporate and political elite may assign us; it’s a kind of brainwashing, guaranteeing society-wide compliance in tyrannies historically entrenched. Walter Lippmann said it best:
[t]he public must be put
in its place…so that
each of us may live
free of the trampling
and the roar of a
The framers believed this problem compelled the formation of a strong government:
[t]he primary function of
government is to protect
the minority of the
opulent from the
majority of the poor.
Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, spear-headed the wartime propaganda from within Woodrow Wilson’s administration by exploiting his uncle’s pioneering work in psychoanalysis to shape public attitudes. As the great war ended, he recognized that these same mechanisms ought apply to peacetime attitudes as well; he successfully increased revenue for the American Tobacco Company after originating the “torches of freedom” campaign, a means of convincing women to smoke by equating the cigarette with a penis. Subsequent to this and similar campaigns, Bernays emerged a superstar and corporate darling, fathering public relations, a watershed science capable of convincing very large numbers of people to purchase the unnecessary and ignore the uncomfortable. These facts are public record, and they’re invaluable in partially contextualizing how my hometown has deteriorated since the post-war boom.
Gainesville, Boom and Bust
Gainesville prospered significantly following the second world war, benefiting principally by railways constructed in the nineteenth century and the intersection of two significant highways, one being I-35, an federal interstate running from Mexico to Canada, the other locally known as state highway 82. Armco Steel and National Supply, steel and oil pump manufacturing companies, co-owned a plant where my grandfather and many other Gainesvilleans found employment. The population dipped with the closing of the plant in the 1980s, and big retail became bigger retail, closing hosts of stores. Thus, the Gainesville of my childhood was stagnant economically, and downtown rapidly became a series of vacant buildings and warehouses. My grandmother recollected to me that municipal leadership of the town deliberately limited growth, though I’ve not been able to corroborate that. Principal employers in the city were the local college, the independent school district, Weber Aircraft, and retail, grocery stores, and restaurants. My mother worked for Weber for a couple years, but lack of jobs led my family out of town during the 1990s, though we returned for my high school years.
Gainesville Gambles, Floods, and Stagnates, Regressing Toward Trump?
In the years since I left town, the Winstar Casino opened across the Red River in rural Oklahoma. Despite the pervasive religious overtones of Cooke County, its primary source of employment now is said casino. Crime rates spiked after my exit, though they settled downward in the decade to follow; a devastating Biblical flood struck the town in 2007, killing some people and destroying considerable property.
Is it possible many of the run-down buildings I saw in my recent visit were condemned after the flood? I’m uncertain, but the demographics have changed, the poverty seems deeper, and Gainesville seems more dangerous to me. On the other hand, some downtown stores have appeared, and there are places in town reminiscent of a more economically rich history. In any case, should Gainesvilleans accept their station on the strength of the word of Trump or some other demagogue? Considering that capital is more valuable than labor, the future is grim for a city with a quarter of residents living below the poverty line, per City Data. A large number of toddlers and slightly older children fall into this category. Eight-in-ten Gainesville voters selected Trump in the 2016 election. This must include a large fraction of those quarter denizens below the poverty line. With such striking numbers, I may very well know personally every person in Cooke County who didn’t vote for Trump…
To escape poverty and lack of jobs, many of us expatriated elsewhere; I also find the sharp support of far right politics reviling. To that end, I found employment in the midcities, then Atlanta, and finally Seattle. My good friend Pat Ledbetter, whom I’ll interview for this blog in the days ahead, mentioned to me that Texas needs “thinking people” now more than ever, and considerably moreso than does Seattle. Though a permanent return to Texas isn’t on the radar, I do think it’s time to offer aid to my city of origin. Beto’s campaign seems a good starting place. He, like Bernie Sanders before him, refuses funding from PACs, relying on local and individual donors. Perhaps there’s more to be done. Pat, my former teacher Clyde Yeatts, and I will have to cogitate…
saber-rattling against North Korea as tensions escalate, virtually ignoring long proposed nuclear freeze proposals articulated by Noam Chomsky, proposals requiring the impossible act of American military retreat in that piece of the world,
underscore the precarious position in which we find ourselves in our 200,000 year run on this planet. In the midst of these tumultuous times, there exists a specter looming over virtually all mainstream discussion, so far out of mind as to conjure moronic climate change denialism, differing in that most Americans, whether convinced of the overwhelming scientific evidence or not, are at least aware of the debate. The bias should seem clear, as Trump’s illegal attack on Syria should indicate : articulate opinion virtually fell into lockstep admiration of Trump, for example, the New York Times remarked,
in launching a military strike
just 77 days into his
Trump has the opportunity, but
hardly a guarantee, to change
the perception of disarray in
Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept pointed out this and many other instances of elite media reversal on Trump the instant bombs begin falling. There exists a chalice of war, and Americans have been drinking deeply of it since the second world war; the mindset is pervasive, infiltrating our holidays, movies, video games, and most state-sanctioned celebrations of patriotism, whatever that actually happens to be. Believe it or not, it hasn’t always been this way. And there are a few voices rising above the rest to remind us.
David Swanson : Today’s Eugene Debs
I first encountered David Swanson’s works in the early days of George W. Bush’s warring administration. I had learned in college about the myriad military misadventures of American presidents, including
Harry S Truman’s illegal war of aggression in Korea, events out of which the brutal North Korean regime emerged,
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s acts of aggression in Guatemala to combat nationalism,
John F. Kennedy’s raving mad stance toward Cuba (to be discussed in an upcoming article in The Spanish Pearl series), and aggressive war against South Vietnam,
Lyndon Johnson’s lying about the Gulf of Tonkin incident to promote war in Vietnam and support of Israel’s illegal invasion of Lebanon,
Richard M. Nixon’s aggressive wars in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as the overthrow of Salvator Allende in Chile on September 11, 1973, the first so-called “9/11”,
James E. Carter’s support of Indonesian dictator Suharto in committing genocide against the East Timorese,
Ronald M. Reagan’s invasions of Grenada (a tiny defenseless island nation), bombing of Libya, drug runs in Columbia, war-making in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and propping up of Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein as a shield against Soviet influence in Iran,
George H.W. Bush’s invasion of Panama and escalation of the Gulf War,
William J. Clinton’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 despite warnings of heavy casualties among fleeing refugees,
George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter of which Chomsky labels the supreme crime of the 21st century, and
David Swanson has long argued that not only is there an alternative to war, there is no alternative to peace. A modern day Eugene Debs, this philosopher and activist has traveled the nation and the world to promote an ideology and dialog badly lacking in elite support. Of interest in this article is his 2013 book War No More : The Case for Abolition. In it, Swanson adeptly confronts many of the persistent myths, including the inevitability of perpetual war, the humanitarian war, the defensive war, the stabilizing war, and the like. He also explains, quite effectively, the post-war shift of American culture in his earlier work War Is A Lie.
A Culture Drunk on War
Long before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Americans often were only very reluctantly conscripted into battle to fight for elite interests, as discussed earlier in the case of the Spanish American War. We know now that desertion and reluctance to fire weapons at other human beings resulted in colossal ammunition waste in most of the wars through the twentieth century. The psychology is simple, Swanson explains :
[m]ost human or primate
or mammalian conflicts
within a species involve
threats and bluffs and
War is unnatural, he argues, citing further evidence that the grooves left in early human skeletal remains are bite marks from the large land dwelling predators we’ve since extinguished rather than battle scars from tribal skirmishes. This in fact echoes earlier commentary on the most native violence experienced by Columbus in his expedition : light sparring with sticks and the like, only very rarely resulting in serious injury. The conquistadors’ violence wrought upon the natives was something else entirely.
In any case, Swanson remarks that since the second world war, the military has become increasingly efficient in indoctrinating soldiers to kill. A parallel public relations program has glorified war in film, print, and now video games, often with heavy consultation from weapon manufacturers and military personnel. One need only look at the preponderance of blockbuster films these days to experience the influence. Further still, military recruiters routinely lie and glorify the military way of life, enticing the poor with a phony carrot rather than the stick of the draft in earlier wars. As before, the poor fight and die while elites shield themselves from the draft, such as
George W. Bush’s convenient station in the national guard,
None of this should come as a surprise, as only a small percentage of human beings can truly stomach killing others. It’s large enough that in our population we routinely hear of such violence, but, as Swanson often suggests with rhetorically surgical precision, imagine if the news stations spent as much time on nonviolence as they do violence.
Swanson helped me begin to identify the tremendous propaganda toward state violence after I read his comprehensive 2010 book War is a Lie; I had noticed in recent years, something he systematically demonstrates in his works, that a large fraction of cinema previews included a vast array of military tools, soldiers, and their deployment to the “battlefield,” a term Swanson very cleverly disabuses as an archaicism. He points out that virtually every popular video game on the market features extreme amounts of gun violence and murder; though I am indeed a great fan of the game Skyrim, virtually anyone paying attention to the gameplay mechanics should notice that both men and mer would face imminent extinction with the pervasive, unremitting violence everywhere. Skyrim isn’t alone, as the most popular video games these days exalt wholesale violence, enabling a broad range of sociopathic choices. If a player kills virtually all citizens of the realm, who would grow the food, tend the livestock, write the books, etc.? More broadly, one can note that almost all the holidays we observe in America are tied to violent acts, including, ironically, Easter, Thanksgiving, and the whole of Armistice Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and the like. Our national anthem celebrates the violence of the Revolutionary War as a boon for freedom, despite the fact that life for 95% of colonists and virtually all natives, slaves, and women changed or worsened under the new management.
Moreover, Swanson strongly argues the malignant effects of war on troops, rendering the catechismic “support our troops” phrase all the more ridiculous : we must continue the killing to honor the dead, lest we savage their memory. I’ve witnessed dear friends and family thank troops publicly for their service, despite our military being the basis for human sacrifice : eighteen year-old boys must go die in some foreign land so we can ward off the undefinable, largely imaginary evil forces of tyranny, much like ancient cultures sacrificed humans to appease the gods of harvest.
I’m familiar with many mental health professionals who can confirm the extremely harmful effect of war service on human beings; post-traumatic stress disorder, coupled with loss of limbs, eyes, hearing, and the like mar not just our own soldiers, the only people elite sectors depict as “people,” but wreck nation after nation, killing millions and driving millions more into exile, prostitution, and violence.
The drone strikes themselves have raised a new generation of terrorists; case in point is Farea al-Muslimi, a young Yemeni student who spread good tidings about America back to his village until it was attacked by drones to kill an unarmed man accused of terrorism. Instantly, a village hates the United States, despite the ease of placing the suspect in custody rather than destroying parts of their village and killing civilians. This story isn’t unique, and it takes genius not to recognize how these policies further imperil both innocents and ourselves.
Even the non-partisan Brookings Institute recently warned that Trump may have the means, militarily or otherwise, (but not necessarily the mind) to finally
think seriously about
ending North Korea’s
nuclear ambitions by
creating a new order
in Northeast Asia.
Consider this in light of Chomsky’s aforementioned comments from a Democracy Now interview in April :
no matter what attack it
is, even a nuclear attack,
would unleash massive
artillery bombardment of
Seoul, which is the biggest
city in South Korea, right
near the border, which
would wipe it out, including
plenty of American troops.
That doesn’t—I mean, I’m no
technical expert, but as far
as I can—as I read and can
see, there’s no defense
In other words, stray too far into that dark place in which Kim Jung Un feels no escape, and the human cost could be tremendous. Is there an alternative? One need only read history, a sample of which I’ve written here, to know that America typically preaches peace and diplomacy, yet we maintain self-proclaimed nuclear first strike power, occupy over 800 military bases in 80 foreign countries as reported by The Nation in 2015, and have committed the supreme crime of aggressive war innumerable times just since the second world war, generally arguing publicly the desire to sue for peace, to supplicate the needy in humanitarian crises, or, earlier on, simply saying nothing.
Freedom isn’t Free, But War Won’t Buy It
It turns out that war fails to improve our freedom, as we’ve argued repeatedly here echoing the writings of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, and Amy Goodman : dedicated resistance and a cohesive, powerful labor movement have so far proved to be sufficient, if not essential to the civility and freedom we enjoy in the modern era. Swanson argues, alongside them, that war historically always has the opposite effect, reducing freedom while fomenting unrest and division. One need only look at the various wars to discover that many dissenters have gone to jail, including Swanson’s historical doppelganger Eugene Debs; Debs encouraged antiwar speech during World War I. War resisters during the Revolutionary War faced violence, confiscation of property, murder, and expulsion to Canada.
During World War II, the government imprisoned Japanese and German Americans. My grandparents worked at Camp Howze, a POW camp near my hometown of Gainesville, Texas. Woodrow Wilson argued during World War I that “disloyal” dissidents
had sacrificed their
right to civil liberties.
We can certainly recall suppression of resistance to Vietnam, and the immediate passage of the fascist PATRIOT Act upon the second 9/11. The point is, not only does freedom not flourish under war, Swanson argues that it cannot flourish. Learning the former must precede the latter, and Swanson articulates a very strong argument for both. So what of the good wars?
Apologists for War
Most rational Americans have come to believe that war is primarily a tool for control. During the Vietnam and Korean Wars, Americans were conscripted to fight for what the Pentagon Papers revealed to be control of the “tin, oil, and rubber“, among other economic objectives. The Project for a New American Century (PNAC), mentioned in earlier posts, was a late twentieth century neo-conservative think tank whose manifesto stumps for conquering Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Iran in order to secure American interests in the region. Swanson raises the intriguing coincidences of both Iraqi and Libyan leadership electing to deny the dollar preeminence in oil purchases, Hussein opting for the euro and Gaddafi the gold dinar, both immediately preceding our violent intervention; certainly intelligence agencies in America and elsewhere knew very well Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction remaining. Lost in this is that Saddam offered to exile himself, handing Iraq over to NATO provided he could abscond with one billion dollars; considering the trillion dollars the war has cost, wouldn’t that have made more sense?
Swanson reminds us of Eisenhower’s admonishment of the rise of the military industrial complex, a largely unaccountable cadre of business and military interests hell-bent on self-sustainment in the face of an increasingly peaceful world. Ironically, as Swanson points out, war doesn’t make market sense, as it would be more efficient to spend the money on renewable energy, infrastructure, education, health, and the like, even aside from the pesky problem of human life.
In any case, PNAC’s manifesto laments that we must
fight and decisively
win multiple, simultaneous
to preserve the so-called “Pax Americana”, conceding that the American public no longer will tolerate protracted wars. Despite years of carefully composed propaganda and rhetoric, the political elites have yet to convince the public that war with Iran is necessary. Trump’s wild approach may prove fatal in this instance, as he, like power-mad elites preceding him, fumes when “enemy” nations comply with sanctions. Nonetheless this reluctance speaks to the increased civility of society.
On the other hand, Americans continue to support war mythology with the firm belief that at least in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II, we defeated tyranny, slavery, and fascism, respectively. We’ve already addressed the farce that is the first of the three above. The Civil War was easily preventable through diplomatic means, though the times were different. Rather obviously, however, the union states simply could have attempted to purchase the slaves, perhaps to the tune of one billion dollars, as opposed to spending three billion to destroy countless cities and leave a buyer cultural resentment still harming us today (in an upcoming article, I’ll try to address the notion of white privilege and the legacy of slavery.) If the north had really wanted a peaceful settlement, it could have permitted secession and encouraged slaves to flee into the free states. The dirty secret is that the north no more wanted freed slaves than did the south. In any case, Swanson debunks these wars with ease, leaving us with the last ace of the warmonger : the second world war.
Swanson Takes Down the “Good War”
For brevity, I’ll leave most of Swanson’s arguments about the so-called “good war” to the reader. But suffice it to say that America was already in the war long before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, actively cutting off supply lines and providing weapons and equipment to the European allies. Truman famously quipped on the Senate floor that we should
help the Russians when
the Germans are winning
and the Germans when
the Russians are
winning[... s]o each
may kill off as many
as possible of the other.
Are these the words of a man pursuing peace and freedom?
Swanson further argues means of preventing Hitler’s rise through a less ridiculous settlement than the Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of the first world war, deescalation of his militarism through discussion and diplomacy, and rescue of the Jewish refugees initially expelled from Hitler’s caustic, totalitarian empire. Instead, we, along with Britain and France, isolated Germany, refused to aid the refugees, and in our case sold weapons to Britain and France while strengthening the Pacific navy, cutting off Japanese supplies in Manchuria, and conducting military exercises off the coast of Japan. Americans actually held a rather favorable view of Hitler, as anti-Semitism was rampant among elite sectors here; both Joseph Kennedy and Prescott Bush, fathers of presidents-to-be, either held business dealings with or openly supported the Nazis even after America officially entered the war. Fanta became Coca-Cola’s means of remaining in Germany, and Henry Ford placed a portrait of Hitler on his desk. In fact, when Confessions of a Nazi Spy, a thriller starring Edward G. Robinson, premiered in Milwaukee, pro-Nazis burned the theater to the ground; even the far right Senators of the day wished to investigate Robinson and the film as Jewish propaganda angling for American entry into the war.
Enshrining the Holocaust only became important to the American political class with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1967, an unsolicited but helpful gesture in advancing American hegemony. Though there’s much to add, suffice to say the one good war killed over seventy million people, or equivalently twenty percent of our current population. Was that really necessary? We touched on the atomic bombs dropped in 1945 at the conclusion of the war. Are we better off for creating them?
A Great Read
Like all of David Swanson’s books and articles I’ve read, he powerfully confronts the folly of pro-war propaganda and the arguments, lofty or low-brow, for the perpetuation of war. He eloquently rearranges the pieces of the puzzle to expose the idiocy of the arguments advanced by the state in support of violence, such as this gem with respect to our government offering protection to people facing chemical warfare :
[k]illing people to
prevent their being
killed with the wrong
kind of weapons is a
policy that must come
out of some sickness
[... c]all it Pre-
I highly recommend this and his other works, as he, like the great activists before him, tells the truth. His words are more prescient than ever before as we confront the problems of the twenty-first century.