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An Interview with David Barsamian

February 12, 2004

By Khatchig Mouradian

 

12th of February, 2004

 

Journalist, author, and lecturer David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado (www.alternativeradio.org). His interviews and articles appear regularly in The Progressive and Z Magazine. He is the author of a number of books, including “propaganda and the Public Mind: Conversations with Noam Chomsky”, “Eqbal Ahmed: Confronting Empire”, “The decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting”, and “The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy”.

 

Aztag- In “The Pen and the Sword” you say “I feel a kinship towards Edward Said rooted perhaps in my own background, in which the themes of exile and dispossession were so prominent”. Can you speak about this feeling?

David Barsamian- It has to do with a sense of loss. My mother lost 22 out of 25 members in her family. The situation was not very different on my father’s side. 3 of my 4 grandparents were murdered. My parents were thrown out from our ancestral homes in Anatolia (my mother was from a village near Dikranagert and my father from one near Kharpet) and found themselves in New York in 1921. The culture was completely different. It was very difficult. My parents couldn’t speak English.  They were poor. I was born in New York, so I was not traumatized directly in the way that they were. My parents were qughatsis (peasants). They were uneducated like most of our people in the rural areas. So they didn’t know what had happened to them. I wanted to know and understand. How did we end up in New York? What happened to my grandparents? Why were they killed? Why were the Turks so savage to our people? But they couldn’t give me any answers. They literally didn’t know the answers themselves. One day they were living fairly normal lives and the next day this genocidal attack came upon them. So I had these questions while growing up as a child in NY and hearing about yergir (homeland). Yergir was some kind of magical place. When I heard the old timers talking about their villages it sounded like heaven. They had all kinds of wonderful fruits, vegetables; the water was so pure, et cetera. I knew instinctively it was exaggerated. Understandably, they wanted to keep the memory of the good things alive. Throughout those years, I felt a certain distance from reality. I was the product of 2 cultures. I am speaking Armenian at home going to Armenian church and Armenian school, but also becoming thoroughly Americanized.

 

Aztag- And the fate of the Palestinians was somehow similar.

David Barsamian- The Palestinians were uprooted in a different set of circumstances but again, an external force came to bear upon a population and flung into a diaspora.  They basically settled in countries surrounding Palestine like Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

 

Aztag- Where incidentally many Armenian refugees have settled.

David Barsamian- Yes, but not in the same large numbers. Most of our people were killed, and most of the Palestinians were driven out, there were those who were killed of course, but the number aren’t comparable. Back to memories, We always kept looking at the Middle East as a place of traditions, food. A while ago I was thinking that its been so long since I had lokhum and baytsegh (dried grapes) that I’ve forgotten how they taste. I am 58 and I feel a kind of loss and nostalgia for the past. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It happens quite naturally.

 

Aztag- In the process of adapting to a new country, how readily do you think one should replace one’s own values with the host environment’s culture and traditions?

David Barsamian- I think one’s heritage, culture, and history are things to be cherished and maintained as much as possible. A diasporic community cannot be as authentic as the community that is in place in the homeland but we here are not in that situation.  There is tremendous pressure in the US to adopt American culture and English. That is something almost inevitable but one can adapt oneself to one’s new country but also take pride and interest in one’s history. Most people in the US do not pronounce my name correctly, they call me anything you can imagine with “Bar.” and then they say “well, that’s not an American name. What kind of name is that? So my entire life, I have been trying, first of all, to correct their pronunciation and to explain that this is an Armenian name and that Armenian names end with “ian”. Most of them cannot find Armenia on the map. When I was a kid my schoolmates would call me Albanian or Bohemian they didn’t where Armenia was. So I remember telling them “Do you know where Iran is? Do you know where Turkey is?”

 

Aztag- Armenia is somewhere in between.

David Barsamian- Yes, we are “in between” people.

 

Aztag- The current generation growing up in the diaspora is even more “in between” than the previous ones. Many know about their heritage, but they often choose to ignore it, and if it happens that they try to get involved and become active, the only thing that interests them politically is lobbying for recognition of the Armenian genocide.

David Barsamian- You have touched an important point. This concerns me very much.  It’s as if the genocide issue is the only thing in the world that is of any value. It’s an obsession, and when you are obsessed with anything, you have distortion. You lack a panoramic 360 degree vision. You can only see one particular degree. This is, of course, because the issue is unresolved and the pain is lingering. Nevertheless, it is very disturbing that the only issue that seems to galvanize them is April 24th. I have grown up with this. It is a crucial issue and we should definitely keep it alive. But we have to be skillful and creative and not operate out of a feeling of victimhood.  We should find allies and build coalitions with kindled spirits in other communities like Native Americans, Latinos, and African Americans who are struggling for social justice. But I’m afraid that doesn’t happen very much. A lot of particularly well-off Armenian Americans seem to be content with giving George Bush thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.  Then they are invited to the White House to shake hands and be photographed with the Great Emir, thinking yergink hassan-they have gone to heaven.

 

Aztag- The Armenian lobby groups in the US, as well as in other countries, are more geared to working with the administration than broadening their field of work, aren’t they?

David Barsamian- It is definitely the case, and my observation is that it’s the same thing with the Arabs (and this is something that irritated Edward Said very much), because in a way we are colonized people here. Thus, we think we should be careful about what we say and what kinds of friendships we make. So what has happened, also with the Arabs, is that here in the US, they’ve become very timid. They also send checks to Bush or to some big powerful political person, they want to be invited to some “hafleh” or “hantes” for some fancy food and that’s it. They think that’s political activism, “Oh now, I gave Bush 10 thousand dollars so he is going to be kind to me. I’ll have influence” Are you kidding? You need to have a lobotomy if you think 10 thousand dollars is going to move Bush. Maybe 1 million dollars will move him but not 10 thousand”.

To be frank, I also have to say that some of the Lebanese Armenians

I’ve met here have very conservative, retrograde political ideas. They

tend to support very aggressive US military policies

 

Aztag- Why do you think that is the case?

David Barsamian- It’s hard to say. Maybe amot ge zkan (They feel ashamed), they see the atmosphere here, which is so fanatically pro Israel, and they are easily intimidated.  After all they are an immigrant group. Every immigrant group tries to be more American than the Americans, it’s not just the Armenians; it is the same with all groups. They try to be even more patriotic to prove that they really deserve to be in this country.

 

Aztag- It’s an inferiority complex.

David Barsamian- They feel as if they are second-class people and they must conform.

 

Aztag- Do you think the atmosphere in the US is contributing to this?

David Barsamian- There is pressure and it’s very noticeable since September 11.  Sometimes it is overt but most often it’s unspoken, it’s under the surface.

 

Aztag- How, in your opinion, should Armenians reach out to others?

David Barsamian- You participate in issues that are important to other communities.  You can’t just be focused on your single April 24th event to the exclusion of everything else. It’s a very diverse and complex world out there but you can always find common ground. For example, issues on immigration are very important to Latin Americans trying to come to US. The Armenian genocide is not an Armenian issue.  It’s a universal issue and we make a mistake in making it a sectarian identity cause.

 

Aztag- And why do you think we don’t see many Armenian activists confronting empire?

David Barsamian- That’s a very interesting question. Historically we are a mercantile community, a nation of shopkeepers, some of them very wealthy, others poor. Because of our historical situation, we didn’t get involved in politics. For us, it was a dangerous area. So there was very little participation. We have to break those old patterns and get involved, or else we have no control or influence. I see some Armenians here that are breaking those stereotypes and thinking outside the box. That’s a positive development.

 

Aztag- Jews were “mercantile” as well, but they don’t seem to have such problems, do they?

David Barsamian- Why have Jews been successful? They have a longer history in the US. They are not Middle Eastern. Most of them came to the US from Europe. They have advantages of language and culture that Armenians didn’t have. For a highly organized and focused segment of American Jews, the creation of Israel in 1948, has given them a raison d’etre. And they promote Israel with great intensity, attentiveness, and acumen.

 

Aztag- Speaking of Israel, what do you think is coming on in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

David Barsamian- More death, more chaos, and more dislocation! The bellicose US policies are keeping the region in a tremendous state of turmoil and instability. It has now injected a huge military force into Iraq. This reckless, illegal and immoral action will only inflame the already very precarious situation in the Middle East. I don’t trust the US. They say one thing, and do another. I think anyone who thinks the US is looking out for the best interests of the people in the Middle East is extremely naïve.

 

Aztag- But then again the Palestinian prime minister is asking the Americans to interfere to broker a deal with Sharon.

David Barsamian- That has historically been a big mistake. The PLO always thinks Americans are going to deliver for them and provide some kind of deal.  The Americans will only do what is in the best interest of Israel. They don’t give a damn about the Palestinians. They are a nuisance for Washington. It’s Israel and oil that they are concerned about. What you describe is a perfect example of how deeply colonized, even an oppressed people like Palestinians, have become. They believe that the patron of their oppressor is going to be their liberator. This kind of thinking has made the PLO lazy and ineffective. They may as well believe in the tooth fairy.

 

Aztag- Do you thing public opinion in the US has recently become more sympathetic towards the Palestinians?

David Barsamian- Public opinion is manipulated by the media. The media has been extremely hostile towards the Palestinians. Everything they do is always reported as violent, and everything the Israelis do is retaliation. The Israelis are constantly portrayed as acting in self defense. So the picture the average American gets of the Palestinians is very distorted and skewed to favor Israel. The negative portrayal of Palestinians extends in general to Arabs, Muslims and Islam. However, Americans in great numbers, when asked the question, say they believe that there should be an independent Palestinian state. So it is a mixed kind of opinion but the atmosphere that the media create is extremely negative. Their pro-Israel bias is embarrassingly blatant.  Every time there is a suicide bombing it creates an electronic wave of sympathy for Israel. Just a few days ago, for example, a bus in Jerusalem exploded 11 people were killed, but that was because the day before 8 Palestinians were killed in Gaza and then 15 a few days later. But most people don’t know about that. And they keep asking, “Why are these Palestinians doing this?  Are they crazy? Have they no sense of morality?”  I want to tell your readers, Americans are not naturally ignorant, even though some people may think that. This ignorance is constructed. It is the product of the propaganda system and the media which makes Americans so uninformed about the rest of the world and particularly about the Middle East. But the fact that it is constructed thing is a good because it can be deconstructed. There are some good journalists such as Robert Fisk and David Hirst covering the conflict but sadly no Americans. But you’ll have to read the British press to read Fisk and Hirst.

 

Aztag- Yes. And I am even inclined to think that despite the corporate media and the brainwashing, people in the US often know what is going on.

David Barsamian- There’s a lot of new information coming forward. Young people are using the Internet. They aren’t depending on corporate TV, “Time Magazine”, “The Washington Post” and the “New York Times” for their info. They are going to commondreams.org, reading dispatches from “The Guardian” or “Le Monde Diplomatique”, reading different types of media from around the world and all that is contributing to a more realistic view of what is going on.

 

Aztag- And what do you think is the impact of alternative media?

David Barsamian- Alternative media is increasing tremendously. Just in the last 3-4 years there has been huge surge in alternative media, not just the internet, but also video, radio et cetera. All kinds of documentaries have been made because young people in general are very dissatisfied with the corporate media. My own media project Alternative Radio, www.alternativeradio.org, is growing rapidly.

 

Aztag- But some people would argue that Globalization is here to stay, and the anti- globalization movement can do little to change things.

David Barsamian- If you think that, then the outcome will be certain. We have to resist this notion of inevitability. Again, it’s the same issue, if you submit yourself, then it shows the effect colonization and propaganda. What progressive leftists like me are saying is that we are not against Globalization, which is as old as history. It’s corporate capitalist driven globalization that is the problem. We are seeking fair trade, not exploitive trade where I make an enormous amount of profit and you just make a few dinars. We seek a globalization based on a sense of equality and justice.

 

 

Aztag- Another export of the US is democracy (not to say forced democratization).  However, democracy in the United States itself does not seem to be full blown. For instance, democracy also means information and I’m not sure about the way information is handled by the US media. How independent is the media there?

David Barsamian- If you look, you can find independent information, but it’s not easily available. It’s a relatively free country, not a dictatorship. I have a weekly national radio broadcast; I give lectures all over the US. No one is interfering with me, but we don’t speak to a large audience because we don’t have capital, so we exist on the margins.  The goal is to reach a large mainstream audience. Michael Moore is an example of just such a success. His films and books are seen and read by many millions.

First of all people have to have a sense of skepticism, maybe the government is lying about Iraq, maybe it’s not telling the truth about Israel. You have to be suspicious about the intentions of the government or the corporate media when they report on a particular story. If you give the power to the state and media and believe what they say is true, then it’s very difficult to change the situation. Nowadays, a lot of young people are rejecting the status quo and I think the attack on Iraq has been a lighting bolt for many; because this time the lying has been so brazen, so in your face, that you cannot avoid it.

 

Aztag- Is there any concerted attempt to fight this lie?

David Barsamian- There’s a problem in the US. Democracy is in a very weak state and it’s not thriving. We have 2 political parties that are largely controlled by big money Wall Street interests, corporations, and lobbies. We don’t have an effective opposition like in some other countries. Look what happened in the election 2000 in the state of Florida, how can anyone talk about democracy after that?

 

Aztag- Internationally as well, the rigid stance towards US foreign policy in Iraq is melting down, isn’t it?

David Barsamian- That’s because you have Americans in Iraq. They’re going to create a fictitious government which is going then to “invite” them to stay in Iraq as an occupying force in order to maintain stability and internal peace. Ahmed Chalabi and his friends are a bunch of quislings. They are pawns of the Americans.  They have no credibility in Iraq. Chalabi left the country when the king was overthrown in 1958. He was convicted by a Jordanian court and sentenced to 22 years in absentia for crimes of fraud and embezzlement. In a word, he’s a crook. And this is the guy the Americans are betting on? Please! These people have no future. You know where most of the propaganda came from about WMD? It was from Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.  They were anxious for this war because they wanted to seize power in Iraq, and Americans like Paul Wolfowitz and Richerd Perle and the others, who don’t know one word of Arabic (maybe they know bazaar and inshallah), believed these lies because they wanted to, they wanted to be misled. Look at how the propaganda works in the US now. What is the big discussion currently?  It’s not that this was a criminal war against a country that was not threatening the US or its own neighbors, the question is: “How did we get the intelligence wrong and should there be an inquiry into the intelligence gathering process?”  I just gave a speech in Aspen, Colorado last week. I said George bush should be sent to The Hague, sit next to Milosevic and be tried for international war crimes. The corporate media wouldn’t say that. Even the Democrats, who are now trying to replace Bush, are very careful and circumspect about what they say. Oh he didn’t plan properly, he didn’t have enough troops, he didn’t anticipate the problems of post-war Iraq, he should have gotten UN approval, et cetera. What do you think will happen if you invade a country and destroy the government? Of course there are going to be problems. One doesn’t have to be a Harvard PhD to understand this.

 

Aztag- The United States is now trying to please the Turks saying that they’d like to keep the territorial integrity of Iraq intact. On the other hand, the Kurds were promised many things prior to the war, weren’t they?

David Barsamian- The most important issue there is what going to happen to Kirkuk, if it comes inside the Kurdish region the Kurds will have economic power, which will give them an enormous amount of leverage to create an independent state.  Turkey will not allow that. The US has a history of selling out the Kurds. It will probably happen again.

 

Aztag- Turkey and Israel are the allies of the United States and its main “law-enforcers” in the region. The US can’t afford to have problems with them, can it?

David Barsamian- Yes, but this is an old story. The US has devised a system of domination which relies on local cops, local gendarmes that maintain control.  Historically, it has been Iran, Turkey, and Israel, all non-Arab countries. Now of course Iran is out of the picture and the job is left to Israel and Turkey. They are the primary enforcers of US imperialism in the region. But some of the work of empire requires heavy lifting. And only Washington can do that.

 

Aztag- Turkey is currently trying to have the Cyprus issue solved and boost its chances to start membership talks with the EU. Here too, the US seems to have work to do in order to push forward the Turkish application.

David Barsamian- The US sees Turkey as a strategic ally and as a tool.  So it wants to please Turkey and it will push the Turkish application forward in the EU. But right now the US is not very popular in Europe so this can actually backfire on Turkey. I cannot recall a period in the history when the US was so unpopular in the world. This has happened because of extremely militaristic policies of the Bush administration (the attack on Iraq, the continued occupation of Afghanistan, blind support for Sharon’s aggressive policies). There’s so much hostility and antagonism towards this country.  Yes, people might like Coca Cola and things like that but I’m talking about politics where, Bush has created many enemies. Yes, there are terrorist threats but no one is addressing the reasons for terrorism. You remember the assassination of Turkish diplomats in 1970s and 80s? Why was that happening? There was a historical reason.  It doesn’t mean you support the action but one has the address the roots of the problem not its symptoms. I don’t think it’s a good idea to hijack planes and fly them into buildings and kill people who are basically innocent. But we have to understand the background. Why are people motivated? There are reasons. The corporate media have completely failed to explain to the American people why there is so much hostility towards this country. They either say it’s envy, “Everyone wants to be like America but they can’t” or the ever-popular, “They just hate us”.

 

Aztag- It’s a clash of civilizations, Huntington would say.

David Barsamian- More like a clash of fundamentalisms. Bush and bin Laden have some things in common. They are both mujahids, holy warriors. One fights for imperialism and the other for a warped view of Islam. They both claim to speak for God. We began with Edward Said, let’s end with him. I miss him, as do many others, very much. He was a fervent advocate against monochromatic thinking. He embraced pluralism and open debate and rejected any kind of narrow thinking. He was inspired by the poem of Aime Cesaire of Martinque:

But the work of man is only just beginning and it remains for man to conquer all the violence entrenched in the recesses of his passion.

And no race possesses the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force, and there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.

 

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