Sunday, June 3, 2007

An Interview with David Barsamian

An Interview with David Barsamian
By Khatchig Mouradian
Aztag Daily
February 12, 2004

Journalist, author, and lecturer David Barsamian is the founder
and director of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado
( 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

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

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, 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,, 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

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.

No comments: