By Hafiz Farisz (Daily Mirror)
Q It is both a pleasure and a privilege to have you speak for the first to a Sri Lankan entity – The Daily Mirror. Since we are confined by time, I would appreciate if the answers are kept as brief as possible. To start off with, during the recent election of Donald Trump, we saw a kind of rise of racism and xenophobia, a phenomenon of right wing populism that we are seeing across the world including in Sri Lanka. What are your views on this?
There are many factors but there are some that are pretty common, certainly for the United States and Europe from which I have just returned, incidentally. One factor that is common and which is very significant is the Neo Liberal programme that was instituted globally, roughly around 35 years ago, around 1980 or a little before and picking up afterwards. These were programmes that were designed in such a way that they marginalize and cast aside a considerable majority of the population. So in the United States if you take a look at say the Trump voters, they are not the poorest people. They have homes, they have jobs, and they have small businesses. They may not have the jobs they like but they are not starving and are not living on US$ 2 a day. These are people who have been stuck for 30 years. Their history and their own image of life and history and the country is- that they have worked hard all their lives, they have done all the right things. They have families, they go to Church and they have done everything right just as their parents did. They’ve been moving forward, which they expected to continue: that their children would be better off than they are, but it hasn’t happened. It stopped. As if they are in a line, in which they were moving forward and it stopped. Ahead of them in the line are people who have just shot up into the stratosphere: that is Neo Liberalism. It concentrates wealth in tiny sectors. They don’t mind that, because part of the American mythology is that you work hard and you get rewards. It is not what happens but that fits the picture, the mythology.
The people behind them are the ones they resent. This is not untypical; scapegoating. Blame your problems on those who are even worse off than you. And their conception is that the Federal Government is their enemy, which works for the people behind them. That the Federal Government gives Food Stamps to people who don’t want to work, that it gives welfare payments to women who drive in rich cars to welfare offices. (These are) images that Ronald Reagan concocted. Their thinking is that, ‘the Federal Government is helping to put them in line ahead of me, but nobody is working for me’. That picture is all over the West. A large part of it was behind the Brexit vote, in the United States they would blame Mexican immigrants, or Afro Americans, in the UK they would blame the Polish immigrants, in France the North Africans and in Austria the Syrian immigrants. The choice of target depends on the society, but the phenomenon is pretty similar. The general nature is pretty similar. There are streaks of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and opposition to gay rights and all sorts of things. And they coalesce when economic and social policies have been designed in such a way which essentially ignores these people and their concerns and doesn’t work for them — and seems to them to work against them.
Q But don’t you think Professor, the notion of an isolationist imperial power, a non-intervening imperial interest that Donald Trump has promised, is something positive for countries like Sri Lanka and the third world at large?
Isolationist is a very funny word. Take Donald Trump’s recent appointments — the important appointments. The most important appointment is his National Strategy Advisor who is Michael Flynn. He is a radical Islamophobe. He thinks we should go to war with the whole Islamic world,– the whole Islamic world. And his view of Islam is not that of a religion, but that it’s a political ideology like fascism, and it is at war with us and that we should destroy it. Is that isolationism? Donald Trump’s position and that of Paul Ryan and other Right Wingers is that we should sharply build up the Pentagon. They talk about our depleted military forces. I mean you don’t know whether to laugh or not. The US spends almost as much on the military as the rest of the world combined. It is technologically far more advanced. No other country has hundreds of military bases all over the world, actually forces fighting all over the world. But ‘we are a depleted military force and everybody is about to attack us and we have to build the military more’, is that isolationist?
We have to carry out economic war against other countries, is that isolationist? No of course not. This is vulgar imperialism masked by a fraudulent concern for the working people and the middle class. Is there any such concern apparent from his cabinet appointments? (they are) straight out of Wall Street and Goldman Sachs. Take a look at the stock market, that tells you how people with power are evaluating his Presidency. (it) Shot up as soon as he was elected. The financial institutions zoomed. The world’s biggest Coal Company ‘Peabody’ which was in bankruptcy had its stock go up by about 50% within days of his election. The military industry, energy industries, pharmaceuticals..they are all going to the sky. Is that an illusion? No, it’s not. That’s the policy, the appeal is not so much the poor, but working people who have suffered, not suffered in the sense of real deep poverty, but suffered in the sense of a loss of status, a loss of dignity, and a loss of hope for the future. In the United States this is combined with an objective fact. That this country is built on extremist white supremacy, comparative measures of white supremacy across the world has put the United States way in the lead, even ahead of white South Africa, and now the white population is becoming a minority.
Q You bring in two interesting points; one is on white supremacy and the other is on Islam and Islamophobia. Firstly though, this idea of supremacy, we have seen this even in parts of South Asia. If you see the rise of Narendra Modi, it was along the same populist lines and even in post war Sri Lanka we are seeing these same attitudes swelling up. So it is not something confined to the US. What do you think the real reason is for this?
Different reasons for different places. In India it’s the rise of Hindu nationalism, which is extremely dangerous. It looks like there is an alliance building up with these xenophobic Right Wing forces around the world. If you noticed, the reactions to Trumps election across the world, was great enthusiasm from the ultra-Right all over. In fact, his first contact was with Nigel Farage, the leader of the UKIP in England and it went on like that. There are common features, but different factors in different countries. In India, it is the Muslims, in the United States it’s Muslims too. But there were also Mexicans and so on. But I think throughout the world you see a similar failure of mainstream establishment institutions to deal with the people’s real problems.
Q Aren’t these fears about the Muslims real? Even in Sri Lanka, there is this fear about the Muslims, along the lines of the fear prevailing in the West. Aren’t these fears about the Muslims real?
They are not unreal. Hitler’s fears about the Jews under the Nazis were not totally unreal. There were rich Jewish bankers, there were Jewish Bolsheviks. Any propaganda system, no matter how vulgar or disgraceful, can only succeed if there are at least small elements of truth. They may be small. While you are in Boston if you listen to ‘Talk Radio’ the main radio- all very Right Wing – you will hear people speaking about Syrian refugees and how they are being treated like princes. That they have been given all kinds of money, that they have been given health services, and education – ‘all kinds of things that we don’t have the Syrian refugees get’- How many Syrian refugees are there? A couple of thousand! They probably do get health services, so it is not totally false. But the typical history of scapegoating is to pick vulnerable people and find something that is not totally false about them- because you have to have some element of truth- and then build it up into a colossus which is about to overcome you. I mean there are states in the United States in the Midwest, where the legislature has passed laws banning Shari’a. How likely is Shari’a going to be imposed in Oklahoma? I mean you know it is not zero. You can find a woman somewhere who is wearing a veil, so there is something. But that’s the way it works. I think in Sri Lanka there is a pretty ugly history after all; I don’t have to recount it.
You can find plenty of cases of massive atrocities and crimes and so on. A demagogic leader and the administration which is not working in the interest of the population but in the interest of wealth and power, almost reflexively is going to turn to attacks on the vulnerable with the support of the media and often the intellectual classes, and blow up small elements of truth into a massive attack. The United States is extremely interesting in this respect. It is the most safe and secure country in the world, but it is probably the most frightened country in the world. Do you know any other country where people feel that unless they take a gun to Church or a restaurant they might be attacked? I mean, does it happen in Sri Lanka?
Does it happen anywhere else? but it happens in the United States of America. All over the United States people feel terrified — ‘they are coming after us’, and that goes way back in American history, and it has roots. There are historical roots.
Q Going by what you just said Professor, Edward Said, one of your contemporaries and friends writing in the early 80’s in his seminal work ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Covering Islam’ points out that Islam has been portrayed by the West, as a monolithic entity. That the West ignored the different histories and different cultures and so on. Have the Muslims of today, 30 years on, bought into this propaganda and believe themselves that they are in fact a monolithic entity?
Take the US or the British policy towards Islam. It has been highly supportive of the most radical elements of Islam. That is true of the British and it’s true of the Americans after they took over from the British. So who is the leading US ally in the Islamic world? Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most extreme, radical, fundamentalist State in the world. But certainly in the Islamic world. And a missionary State, which uses its huge resources to sponsor its Wahabist extremism through Madrasas and so on. It is the main source of Jihadism. The main ally is that — monolithic. I mean what state power does, and propaganda usually follows, is (to) find what will support a power interest. In these cases imperial policy. If it happens to be radical Islam that’s fine. At the same time we might be fighting radical Islam somewhere else. The propaganda system would create images of Islamic terror seeking to destroy us when that turns out to be the plausible kind of scapegoating. So 9/11 happened and the Tamil Tigers atrocities happened. You can use those as ways of building up fear, anger, and anxiety to support the tendency to hide under the umbrella of power from these forces about to destroy us. Like Shari’a law in Oklahoma, got to protect ourselves!
Q You spoke of a new shifting of the world order when you spoke of Nigel Farage and other Right wing elements shifting towards Donald Trump. Is there a shift in the international sphere, like we saw during the Cold War, where the world went into two different sides including the non-aligned? A kind of shift today that is happening, between the Right Wing nativists on the one hand and the Left wing internationalist on the other?
First of all, I don’t really agree with the conventional version of the Cold War. You take a look at the events of the Cold War. Not what intellectuals talk about, not the ideology. Take a look at the events. The events of the Cold War consisted of violent attacks by the US within its domains — which is most of the world. And Russian, violent attacks on its much smaller domain, which was Eastern Europe. That was the Cold War. Each side used the alleged threat of the other as a justification for its own internal repression. So the US had to support a terrorist war against Nicaragua because of the Russians, who were not anywhere nearby. The Russians had to invade Hungary because of the Americans. That was the Cold War. There was, in a way, you could describe it as a kind of tacit compact between the two imperial powers: The huge imperial power of the United States, the smaller imperial power of Russia. Kind of a tacit compact in which each side was authorized to carry out violence and repression in its own domains, for the US this means most of the world, without an actual conflict. Now there was a danger, always, a serious danger that an actual conflict might blow up in which case we’re finished. As soon as there is a major nuclear war, humans are done with. So there was always a fear, if there was a confrontation; but if you look at the events of the Cold War you get a very different picture. And it’s the events that matter, not the words.
Q But is there a realignment across the world, Professor, between this Right-wing populist xenophobic elements and…
No, there is Left liberal populism too, take the United States.
Q You gave me a good precursor to the next question. Isn’t the left liberal dead? I know you’ve had your differences with Slavoj Zizek but as he points out what Clinton personified and is a symbol of is that Left liberal position- a coalition which had you and also Alan Dershowitz, which had ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and Wall Street together. Isn’t this coalesce…
There is lack of comparison there. Alan Dershowitz speaks for the, it’s kind of a mixture, but the xenophobic extremist Right -he is all over the place. The Left liberal media, say NPR, he’s on it all the time, Right wing media he is on it all the time. Then there’s me. Am I on (them)? In fact, when you leave, take a photograph of one of my favourite front pages of a journal. I liked it so much I framed it. It’s the main Left liberal journal – ‘American Prospect’ – and it has a picture of two evil creatures who are threatening American liberalism, one is Dick Cheney and the other is me. That’s the parallel. And it indicates what’s in the mind of American liberals –“We’re being attacked by these monsters on both sides”- One of them who sits in an office and has no access to anything, the other — the guy who controls the biggest military machine in the world and is invading Iraq, those are the two forces. Same with the rest, ‘Occupy’ versus Wall Street, what’s the comparison? Actually, there is a comparison, but not what’s being described. ‘Occupy’ is very small, it doesn’t begin to compare with Wall Street. But the population does. And a lot of the population supports them (Occupy).
In fact take the US elections, in terms of numbers, Clinton won pretty easily. But more interestingly, if you look at younger voters, first of all Clinton won overwhelmingly, but Sanders won even more overwhelmingly. Here is somebody who came out of nowhere, no economic support, no rich supporters, no corporate support, 100% media opposition, basically unknown, talking about socialism, which is a bad word, and overwhelmingly won the youth support. Well, the constituency that supported him does not have money, power, corporate backing, and so on. So they are not considered popular, they are just kind of off the spectrum of discussion, but they are there. And they can change policies.
Q Professor, since you spoke of the youth, we have watched you speaking about how Universities dumb down thinking or intellect. You are a person who, since your early teens, you have questioned the status quo, do you see that among the youth today? Are the youth questioning the status quo as much as they should?
Well, why did an overwhelming majority of young people support Bernie Sanders? That is the answer to your question. Yes, of course they are challenging the status quo. They don’t have wealth, military power, corporate backing, media backing, nor support from intellectuals; but sure, they are challenging the status quo. All the time.
Q But across the globe, aren’t you also seeing them move towards the nativist nation state concept?
You are seeing that, but you are also seeing something like the Sanders phenomenon, Soy Podemos in Spain. I just happened to be in Barcelona, Barcelona is a major city, and the mayor who was just elected is a Left-wing activist. These things exist all over Europe. The Corbyn phenomenon in England, the Labour Party elite is bitterly opposed to it, of course the Tories kind of like it, because they want to see the Labour Party collapsing. But, it’s substantial. As soon as Corbyn opened a possibility for people, ordinary people, to participate, the Labour Party shot up. These are real opportunities. Take the Trump voters in the United States, many of them voted for Obama in 2008. Why? If you remember the campaign slogan, it was ‘hope’ and ‘change’ and they were voting for hope and change. They didn’t get any hope and they didn’t get any change, so they are disillusioned and now they are voting for someone else who is calling for hope and change.
Q But don’t you see that happening even in South Asia? That it’s either Trump versus Corbyn? That the liberal middle ground, for which I use Hillary Clinton as a symbol is losing ground. That you need to pick a side, instead of staying in the centre?
Everywhere. Everywhere, the mainstream political organisations which are kind of centrist — centre Left or centre Right — are diminishing and collapsing. That is true of institutions too. There’s anger at institutions, contempt for them, hatred of them. Not just the political institutions, but the banks, the corporations, just about everything except the military. This, to go back to our original discussion, is a reflection, substantially, of the Neo Liberal policies of the past generation. It has harmed much of the population, offered nothing to them, given power and prestige to extreme wealth and professional elites who are protected. So, it leads to anger and resentment against the established institutions.
Q Moving on, has the media changed landscape since you wrote ‘Manufacturing Consent’ in 1989? Is the media manufacturing consent now?
Well, we didn’t actually say that media was manufacturing consent; we said that — that was what they were trying to do. We discussed the nature of the media. There’s a separate question – to what extent is it effective? And that’s an interesting question, but we didn’t discuss it. They’re still doing it in the same way. In fact, dramatically. Take November 8, two things of critical significance happened on November 8. One of them was massively reported, the other, which was much more important, received no report – that was the Marrakesh Conference of two hundred countries that tried to implement the Paris programmes to try to save the human species from destruction. That’s a lot more important than what happened in the US election. And, in fact, it was undermined by the US election. What happened in Morocco is astounding if you look at it; one country was leading the way to try to save civilization from self-destruction. One country was way behind, trying to lead the way towards self-destruction, the first was China the second was the United States. That is a remarkable spectacle. Did you see a comment on it?
That is manufacturing consent.
Q Finally, you have come to the evening of your life after over half-a-century of being the epitome of pioneering thought and intellectual discourse, what are your views on religion? And what is your personal belief of life after death?
Personally, it means nothing to me, but if it means something to other people, that is fine. As long as they don’t bother others. I don’t ridicule it, I don’t have contempt for it, I have respect for their views, but they are not mine.
Q And your views on religion, you were born into a Jewish family and raised…
Well, remember that Judaism is fundamentally a religion of practice, more than belief. So, say my grandfather, who was basically still living in the 17th century Eastern Europe was ultra religious. But if I had asked him, did you believe in God? He probably wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. Judaism means carrying out the practices. My father was basically secular, but deeply involved in Jewish life. If you go to a New England church on Sunday morning, you would find people who are deeply religious, but not believers. Religion to them means community, associations, helping each other, having some common values and so on. Religion could be all sorts of things. But to me, it doesn’t happen to be a value; if other people do, that is their business.