Journalist David Barsamian conducted nearly 100 interviews with world-famous political philosopher Noam Chomsky. It was broadcast on Parsimian’s Alternative Radio syndicated radio show, which began in 1986 and is now broadcast on 300 stations. Barsamian has published several books of his interviews with Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Edward Said and other prominent activists. Notes on Resistance is his new book of interviews with Noam Chomsky, coming out September 2022 by Haymarket Books. The Sentinel recently spoke with David Barsamian at Noam Chomsky’s 94th birthday about the American war machine, the class struggle, and the power of the press.
Notes on resistance
David Barsamian: I’m really happy to talk to you on Noam Chomsky’s 94th birthday. To a large extent, he’s in charge of alternative radio. I wrote him a fan letter around 1980 after reading one of his books. I never expected a response. But this was a typewritten note from him, encouraging me to continue my work! This led to a back and forth correspondence and then I did my first interview with him in 1984. I have done about 100 interviews with him since then. The new book—Notes on Resistance—contains my latest interviews with Chomsky. His recollection and ability to fuse disparate information and history together into something coherent is very extraordinary.
Q: What distinguishes you from what you learned from Chomsky during these years?
David Barsamian: What is remarkable about Noam is his incredible generosity and patience. One day I was in his office at MIT preparing for another interview. There were two middle school students with Noam doing a report for their local school newspaper. And waiting in the next room was the Nobel Prize winner. Noam was giving his undivided attention, respect and honor to these little kids and it really amazed me. He’s not a high-ranking MIT professor with international fame and reputation talking to these kids. He was always kind, generous and very patient.
Q: In the new book, Chomsky still criticizes capitalism and militarism and advocates changes to our political and economic structures, but he asserts that our main crisis now is the climate crisis.
David Barsamian: Why isn’t more attention paid to the climate emergency and this whole issue of incremental reform versus structural change? Are we going to just compost and recycle plastic and drive an electric car? We should do these things anyway, but it’s not enough. We need urgent action to control fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere. This is what kills the planet and increases temperatures. The Middle East and South Asia will experience record heat waves. Perhaps the 10% that have air conditioners around the world will survive, but the rest will suffer terribly. 50 degrees Celsius is 122 degrees Fahrenheit! These temperatures will normalize in the coming decades, not centuries.
The political class – the corporate capitalists – do not direct their attention to saving the planet. The system requires profits and this supersedes all other considerations for the well-being of the planet or the future of our children and grandchildren. Greta Thunberg did not go to Sharm El Sheikh (Egypt) for COP 27. One attendee described it as a corporate fair with more representatives of fossil fuel companies than any other group. I’m glad Greta Thunberg didn’t go. You have installed it correctly; “It’s more blah blah blah blah blah blah.”
Q: You mentioned that in recent years there has been a transfer of wealth from the bottom 90% of the population to the top 1%.
David Barsamian: Wealth transfer has become particularly acute over the past 40 years. This economic policy is bipartisan. There are slight differences between Republicans and Democrats, but there is consensus. We will continue to transfer the greatest amount of wealth from the great number of people to the few. This is neoliberal economics.
Q: In “Notes on Resistance” Noam says that the United States has been fighting a war almost every year since its founding. Tell me more.
David Barsamian: We live in a war country. It is not just the amnesiac United States – as Gore Vidal called it – but the United States of arms. This is the largest industry. The Pentagon budget is about to be approved by our great leaders in Washington, D.C., on a scale of nearly $900 billion. If you include the money from the Department of Energy – a lot of which goes to nuclear weapons – it’s over a trillion dollars.
Today we are supposed to be afraid of China and Russia. This fear was manufactured to justify the ongoing military-industrial complex that Eisenhower astutely warned us about in his farewell address in 1961. Unfortunately, while he was president and could have done something about the military-industrial complex, he did nothing. But still, it is an important phrase.
The United States has leadership in Africa, just like Rome in ancient times. We have more military bases around the world than all other countries in the world combined. However, we do not have adequate healthcare and affordable housing. People are not getting the services they need because so much of our wealth is being funneled into the war machine and companies like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, General Electric, Raytheon, and United Technologies. I just learned we’re going to have a new B-21 bomber at $800 million each.
The military has dominated the thinking of politicians in this country for a very long time. It goes back to the origins of the republic. It began with the massacre of the indigenous population and hardly a year went by without the United States getting involved in some military action.
Masters of the universe
Q: However, the US military always claims to support freedom and democracy.
David Barsamian: Do we support women’s rights in Afghanistan? Was this why we invaded Afghanistan, or was there an ulterior motive? Do we care about freedom of expression in Iran and should women wear the hijab or not? The hypocrisy here is mind boggling. It is not double standards. It’s quad standards! There is one set of criteria for designated enemies such as North Korea, Syria, Russia, Iran and Venezuela and another set of criteria for what Adam Smith called the “Masters of the Universe”. They can do whatever they like, ignoring international and moral law.
FBI – Political Police
Q: There is a section in Notes on the Resistance where you and Noam talk about the FBI. I feel like the FBI has spent more time trying to stop grassroots democratic movements than it has been looking for bank robbers and murderers. It was a political entity. Tell me about your experience with the FBI.
David Barsimian: They came to my house. I had visited Iran several times, most recently in 2016, 2017. After this visit, every time I took a trip, I was detained at airports for what they call secondary screening. They will ask, “Why are you going? What are you going to do there?” I have always allowed a little extra time at airports to accommodate these inconveniences. All of this was simply because I visited Iran, which has been in Washington’s crosshairs since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which toppled the American good and arms buyer, the Shah of Iran.
A couple of years ago, I was getting a haircut early in the morning and my wife says, “There are two people at the door and they say they’re FBI agents.” By the way, my wife is from Turkey and therefore knows something about police surveillance and the national security state. At first I thought they were Jehovah’s Witnesses because of their looks. Very short hair, a well-fitting, tight tie and tight-fitting, very tight suits. But when I found out this was the FBI, I got a little worried. I went out and did not let them through the front door. We have a balcony. I said, “Why are you bothering me here? What’s the point?” They tried to be friendly, “We just want to know about your travels to Iran. What are your relations with so-and-so? Do you know such-and-such?” I just summed it up, “This is pure and simple intimidation. You have no right to be here.”
As you mentioned, the FBI has historically been the national political police, and it doesn’t focus on crime. Especially white collar crimes. As Ralph Nader says, if you compare crime in the wards to crime in the streets, there is no competition. The FBI has harassed the American Indian Movement and regularly infiltrates left-wing organizations, but it’s not very active when it comes to right-wingers.
Journalism is the core of democracy
Q: What is the power of journalism to create a better world?
David Barsamian: The press plays a very important role in a truly functioning democracy. Jefferson used to say, supposedly, that journalism is the essence of democracy. We are now living in a post-reality atmosphere in the United States where people question everything. I prefer skepticism, but when skepticism turns into cynicism, you are paralyzed and paralyzed; “The game is rigged, why bother?”
We need journalists like Julian Assange, C. Hirsch, Jeremy Scahill, Matt Taibbi, and Robert Fisk, who have recently passed away. We need people like Noam Chomsky. Born in Philadelphia to immigrant parents in 1928, I interviewed him again last week and asked him the secret to his longevity. He said, “Just keep doing what you’re doing. There’s no secret. Keep going. Persevere. Don’t give in to pessimism or negativity. Connect with people.” He also said: “Service is the most important.” This is really a keyword when I think of Chomsky. In Sanskrit, it is a sword. The political class tells us, “We are the owners of the world and we’ll take care of things.” But we all need to find Seva to serve our community, our family and the larger world.
Listen to this interview with David Barsamian on Transformation Highway Thursday afternoon with John Malkin on KZSC 88.1 FM / kzsc.org.