Interview: "Radio Activism: An Interview with Activist-Journalist David Barsamian"
Radio-Activism: An Interview with Activist/Journalist David Barsamian
The Armenian Weekly
January 12, 2002 (Part I) and January 26, 2002 (Part II)
This week’s interview is with David Barsamian, founder/director of “Alternative Radio” (AR) - the award-winning public affairs program. Established in 1986 and based in Boulder, CO, AR is dedicated to the founding principles of public broadcasting, which urge that programming serve as “a forum for controversy and debate,” to be diverse, and “provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard.” Barsamian’s project is entirely independent, sustained solely by individuals who buy transcripts and tapes of programs. According to Barsamian, its “headquarters” is situated to correspond with its positions in the mainstream mass media: down an alley, behind a house, on top of a garage in Boulder. From this rarified location, AR’s programs manage to reach over 125 radio stations and millions of listeners.
Barsamian lives in Boulder, and is a regular contributor to left-leaning alternative publications such as The Progressive and Z Magazine. He is the author of numerous books with MIT Professor and political dissident Noam Chomsky. His latest book with Chomsky is "Propaganda and the Public Mind" (South End Press), in which Chomsky offers insights into the institutions that shape the public mind in the service of power and profit. Another recent release, “Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire” (South End Press), is a collection of Barsamian’s interviews with Pakistan’s legendary anti-imperialist political analyst/activist. David’s new book is aptly titles “The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting” (South End Press).
David graciously agreed to be interviewed for The Armenian Weekly while visiting New York City to attend the Socialist Scholars Conference and take part in demonstrations protesting the corporate takeover of Pacifica Radio. While this interview was conducted several months ago, the insights he offers regarding US foreign policy should give us food for thought in the wake of Sept. 11. In addition, David’s observations about a host of Armenian issues as seen from an “Armenian community outsider’s” perspective should give readers cause for reflection.
Lucine Kasbarian: David, it’s a privilege to meet you in person. It’s also a pleasant surprise to learn that you were raised in New York City by Genocide survivors, speak fluent Armenian, and are even a descendant of Dikranagertsis (like my brother and me). Tell us about “Alternative Radio” and how it happened.
David Barsamian: AR consists of a couple of full-time staff, part-timers, and me. It’s funded in a radical way unlike any other comparable project. Listeners call up the station and order the tape just heard. The stations get the program for free off satellite. I go into the red to produce the programs -- from labor to production -- in the hopes that people will buy a $13 tape. And it has happened consistently. We make ends meet totally from listener support and sales from tapes. The books also sell well. Some of these books have sold 100,000 copies…and with no publicity apparatus. We’ve had zero book reviews appearing in the New York Times. I’ve always bankrolled the project. Initially it was a total exploitation of labor (my own), operated out of my house from 1985 until 1994. People would call, I’d take orders over the phone, then take packages to the post office…I did everything. Then I got out. It was unbearable. When you have an 800 number, people think they’re calling a 24/7 phone bank in Iowa. Even today when I go to the office, people will call and say “I just heard your voice on the radio, How can you be picking up the phone?” They’re thinking media mogul, empire, huge staffs. It’s actually very personal.
LK: To what do you credit your success?
DB: I think people hear alternative news programs and react to them. They’re genuinely fed up with the pablum that’s being presented on the mainstream evening news regarding the deaths of JFK Jr., Princess Di and JonBenet Ramsey. “Will the Mets repeat? Why can’t they beat the Braves? What’s happened to Benny Agbayani? Will he come off the disabled list?” These are some of the burning questions we’re ostensibly concerned about in this day and age.
LK: How did AR start?
DB: I am entirely self-taught. I have no background in journalism. I dropped out of college after one year at San Francisco State. I hated it. I barely graduated from high school in NYC. I had to go to summer school to get enough credits to get through. I was playing hooky every day, going to Times Square and watching three movies for 99 cents, coming home at four in the afternoon. My mother, Araxie, would ask, Tbrotzuh eenchbes antsav? (How did it go at school?) and I’d say, Shad lav, mamigus. (Very well, mommy dearest). She didn’t have a clue about what was going on. How did I start AR? I was always very political and radicalized by things like the Armenian Genocide -- which I found so unresolved. It was such an unspoken thing and I was the only one of my family’s generation who seemed to take an interest in it. My siblings never asked any questions about what happened. My mother was the first person I interviewed in what has since become a career of interviews for me. I know I was doing this to draw her out and navigate her through her grief so she could articulate that. So that was the beginning.
Then I interviewed a wonderful man from East Orange, NJ, Sarkis Hagopian. He was a tailor and a fierce Tashnag. He was from Dubne, my mother’s village, and that made you an automatic relative. There were so few survivors left, so he was Uncle Sarkis. I learned a lot about politics from him. Not necessarily his politics, but politics. He would come over every Sunday with the New York Times, and would rant about the Turks and the US and the Republicans. He hated McCarthy, and I thought that was pretty right-on at the time. This is in contrast to my father Bedros who stuttered -- while I’m a non-stop talker. I was determined to command this language and make it work for me in a way that this poor guy never had a chance to do. My father couldn’t command Armenian; forget about English. My parents were real kiughatsis (village people; yokels). Bedros’ father was murdered when Bedros was a one-year old during the 1895-1896 massacres. So politics I got from Uncle Sarkis as well as my sister who took an interest in my brain.
I couldn’t get anything out of school -- I was bored out of my mind. I was pretty political, kind of a rebel with or without a cause. I spent a few years in India studying the sitar, and that story would be a two-hour diversion, but what I will say is that the studying in India showed me how to concentrate and focus, be disciplined and use time effectively. I learned that if you can master one thing, you can master others. Like the Hindi saying, “If you do one thing well, other things will follow. If you do everything at once, you get nothing.” That helped me do AR because it requires a lot of concentration and discipline. I liked the idea of service. Providing something to people was important to me. I saw this with the musicians and how they cared about their art. There was a repository of Raga music for which they were caretakers. It made a great impression on me.
Then I came back to the States in 1970 and had to deal with the FBI, as I had been avoiding the draft. I was interviewed by the CIA in Delhi (this is what the CIA is doing with your tax dollars -- running down kids playing the sitar in India!). They called me into the US Embassy and I was told that if I didn’t come back, there would be a warrant out for my arrest. So I had to return and deal with the draft. It was appalling. To cut the story short, let’s just say I went unwashed and unshaven for weeks, and before I left to take the draft board exam (my one chance to get out), I deliberately took uppers and downers and opened up the refrigerator and poured a carton of milk over my head. That’s how I walked into the draft office. As soon as I got there, they pounced on me like I was the plague, and separated me from the others. I had a letter from an Indian doctor saying I was crazy, and another one from an ACLU referral on Central Park West -- an anti-war doctor who also said I was crazy.
It was a harrowing experience, but I got out of it. My knees shook for six months afterwards, it was so destabilizing. Having to leave India -- to be wrenched from that cocoon I was in -- the whole thing was nerve-wracking. I couldn’t continue my studies. I’ve been back three times since, but it was nothing like that initial period.
LK: What did you do back in New York?
DB: I taught English to foreigners. Just by sheer guile, I bluffed my way into language schools like American Express at Rockefeller Center. As it turns out, I can take on different personalities and the character of the place I am in. So when I was in Afghanistan, people thought I was Afghani or Pakistani. When I was in Iran, people thought I was Iranian. I could play that as long as I have the languages going.)
Anyway, I moved to Boulder in 1978 when I visited my sister. I liked it and decided to stay. As soon as I arrived, a community radio station, KGNU, went on the air. They broadcast a request asking listeners to do programs. So I proposed a world music program called “Ganges to the Nile,” because it could allow me to explore my interest in this field. I thought I could fake Middle Eastern music. I knew quite a bit about it, and I actually knew Indian stuff, so I started this cult of international music. At the time, if you went to a record store, there would be two records in the international music bin -- Machito and Tito Puente. That was it. There was no World Beat then.
Not long after Ganges went on the air, the Iranian hostage crisis started and I decided I couldn’t play this music without telling people what was going on. So I immediately politicized the program and brought Iranians in and still kept the music and culture, but it was largely becoming a political program. The music lovers hated it. They wanted their fantasies. They did not want to be disturbed by Iranian hostages. But then I got a political audience. I did that and started a program after that called “Hemispheres,” and then another program called “Thirty Minutes” -- my take on “60 Minutes” -- all local in Boulder. While this was going on, every week, people were stopping me in the streets asking for tapes of my programs. And I’d pass out my tapes for free. After a while, this was getting pretty overgrown. I thought if there was a groundswell of interest locally, maybe I could do it nationally. So I started syndicating the program called Alternative Radio nationally, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
LK: How do you quantify the popularity of the programs?
DB: Partly from the orders. But you never know who’s listening and there is a larger audience there. If there are a thousand trees in the forest, maybe only ten of them are calling for tapes. So I feel I am doing this political agricultural work sowing seeds. Who knows who is listening in Montana? Some kid could be hearing my program with Peter Balakian, take an interest, do some investigation of the Armenian Genocide or US foreign policy toward Turkey. By the way, Balakian says that Turkey is the most privileged client of the United States. Well, he’s slightly off by one country, but it’s certainly the second most privileged client.
LK: Do you think he would have felt comfortable saying that Israel is the first?
DB: Perhaps not. I talked to him about this afterwards and he immediately conceded that he should have mentioned Israel. And he said he would in the future.
LK: How do you feel about that?
DB: I was glad to hear what he had to say. I’m not going to lecture someone. I know what I would do.
LK: Why do you feel he omitted mentioning Israel?
DB: It’s very easy to sit on a throne and look down and comment. I don’t want to sound holier than thou. People do things for different reasons. I’m trying to keep integrity in what I do because it’s important to me to look in the mirror and feel good about what I’m doing/ I don’t have to chase money, and that gives me a degree of independence. I don’t apply to foundations for grants. I don’t attend soirees with rich people and get them to sign checks over to me. I feel privileged to live this way. I’m not in debt. AR grossed close to $300,000 last year. It’s a small cottage industry. I pay myself and my staff, stringers, pay for satellite uplinks, and all the distribution. Stations get AR programs for free. There are just a handful of people working in this radical field that don’t also have to work somewhere else. I am lucky to do this as a vocation.
LK: What do you try to accomplish when you bring scholar-activists such as Edward Said onto the airwaves?
DB: The fact that a single independent broadcaster in Boulder has to do this speaks volumes about the current state of democratic expression and how that’s manifested or not manifested in largely corporate controlled media. When I started using that phrase -- corporate controlled media -- years ago, I used to get razzed by program directors at National Public Radio (NPR) stations. They took umbrage to it. Now it goes right by them. It’s not an issue anymore. But I digress.
When journalism professor Ben Bagdikian wrote the first edition of The Media Monopoly in 1983, he mentioned 50 media corporations that dominated the media. In the second edition, there were only 28 due to consolidation. In the next edition, there were 14. In the edition after that, there were 10. The latest edition (this was as of this 2002 interview) names 6 corporations. It’s like the Agatha Christie novel, “And Then There Were None.”
So there’s tremendous concentration now in the media. There’s a range of opinion that starts with General Electric and goes to General Motors. Bagdikian doesn’t have radical politics like me. He is from a more straight-laced middle-class background. His father was a Poghokagan (Protestant) preacher. He got radicalized by his media experience. So I feel that AR’s mission is to project those voices that are locked out, muffled, and don’t have access to “Charlie Rose” or “All Things Considered” or “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” (given that PBS is considered to be left liberal media).
If public radio were doing its job, and if you read their founding documents and mission statements, it’s incredibly radical; giving voice to the voiceless, giving opportunities to those in your community who would otherwise not be heard. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has done very good work on this. It’s well documented. Meanwhile, the corporate media always uses the same golden rolodex of star pundits and administration officials when spokespersons are needed. I was vomiting during this China spy plane stuff in the news. We had Lawrence Eagleburger, Brent Scowcroft, and other has-beens from the Reagan and Bush administration plus Clinton hacks like National Security Advisor Samuel Berger all pontificating on the same dull, predictable material.
LK: What did you think when the public openly heard about the White House’s quandary when confronted with a volatile situation with a major trading partner like China -- a partner US planes were spying on?
DB: This was an interesting struggle. On the spy-plane issue, ideology was trumped by business interests. K-Mart was more important than the Republican right wing -- which wants to smash China, wants to heavily militarize the budget, wants a new Cold War. They’re chomping at the bit because no one falls for these nickel-and-dime tyrants the US keeps putting forth as the new Soviet Union. Khadafy lasts for a few months. Noriega was toppled. Saddam is a punching bag. And Colombian drug cartels come up for a while and then disappear. So they’re desperate for some kind of demon and China and Tiananmen Square fills the bill. But then sometimes the ideological interests trump the class interest like we’ve seen with Iran (and Cuba). No large business firm supports the embargo against Cuba. But there, it’s right-wing US politics trumping commercial interests. This is not a monolithic agenda. Sometimes one supersedes the other.
LK: Doesn’t AR gain momentum from the people you interview who also comprise a network of simpatico individuals who are connected to a movement?
DB: That’s true. Ralph Nader is connected to Howard Zinn. Zinn is connected to Edward Said. Said is connected to Naomi Klein.
LK: You are, in a sense, doing community building yourself.
DB: Electronic community-building. I’ve created a little organization and hope it can continue in some form. I can’t maintain this pace for very long. I do a weekly national program in addition to running around giving talks, writing books, and doing interviews.
LK: What do you think the future hold for public and alternative radio?
DB: While there is a lot of corporate consolidation, there is also a huge upsurge of interest in alternative sources. And you see that in Internet activity and Independent Media Centers springing up all over the country. I travel a lot and see a lot of ferment. I see a lot of grassroots insurgencies. I can’t say they’ve linked up and connected the dots, though. It’s a hurdle to overcome.
LK: Do you think it’s true that the media refrains from covering specific community activities -- political demonstrations for example and particularly if they repeat themselves all over the country -- because they don’t want the public to recognize the level of outrage there might be on a given subject?
DB: The media represents a class interest. There’s no question about that. That’s not a controversial statement though you can’t utter the term “ruling class” in the US except to say “middle class.” You can’t utter the term “elite” because supposedly we all rule. The propaganda is so extensive and rooted in the soil that we end up drinking from that very water. In terms of debate, in terms of how we frame our thoughts, many of us replicate ruling class attitudes. Everything is framed by the corporate nexus. What I’m trying to do is get people to de-link themselves from that nexus and encourage critical thinking.
LK: Why do you think grassroots organizations and critical-minded individuals have not linked up more often? Is it a lack of charismatic leadership? A lack of labor organizers?
DB: The classic model has been the charismatic leader. It hasn’t worked. Look at Jesse Jackson. He showed so much promise and got seven million votes in the primaries in 1988. Look what happens to movements like the PLO that put all their chips on an incompetent idiot. Look at the outcome! I think it’s much better to build from the grassroots than from the top down. But it’s a classic lure and it’s very seductive to go to rallies chanting “Fi-del! Fi-del!” You get caught up in that stuff. Haven’t you been to demos where people are chanting “Ar-tsakh! Ar-tsakh! Mia-tzoom! Mia-tzoom!” ? Don’t you feel your blood surging alongside thousands of people? It’s a very powerful drug. But I don’t think it’s something you can build a movement around. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X never held political office. It’s possible to do work without going through the quagmire of electoral politics dominated by corporate money. The US is a cash-ocracy. One dollar, one vote. Look at the impact of American socialist Eugene Debs had working outside the system. Look at the New Deal. It took ideas from the progressive movement in the early part of the 20th century.
LK: How have you been able to sense that tides have turned in terms of socio-political awareness in the United States?
DB: The Palestinian issue has done it, I think. I have my own toll-free number. When you have this, people feel very free to dial and call you all kinds of names, denounce you, and say how horrible you are…that you’re an anti-Semite, etc. I’ve done many programs with Palestinian scholar-activist Edward Said since the mid-1980s. Invariably, whenever I did one, there would be a flood of phone calls denouncing the program. This time there were just one or two.
And I think the enormity of what’s going on in Palestine right now is pretty hard to deny, even for the most fervent apologists for Israel. I think that’s changed the perception of Israel as David -- which has been the historic role -- which has been played to the n-th degree very skillfully. It has two US political parties working full-time on its behalf, plus the entire media establishment from Newsweek to CNN to NPR.
The NY Times has two regular columnists whose full-time jobs it is to promote the Israeli position. One of them, William Safire, is extremely fanatical. As a Zionist, he regularly uses terms such as Judea and Samaria to describe the West Bank. Could you imagine if some German journalist started using terms Sudetenland or East Prussia to describe territories no longer in Germany? People would be howling. But this just passes here without comment.
Let’s talk about media indoctrination. I could write a letter to the NY Times, but why bother? You can’t get anything printed. It will just join the 50 other letters of mine that they’ve never published. It’s just an exercise. The level of lying on the Middle East is so enormous that it exceeds everything -- Iraq, Turkey, issue after issue. Oil and Israel -- the left and right lungs of US foreign policy.
LK: What are your thoughts on the kind of media exposure Edward Said has gotten lately?
DB: Said made a trip to Santa Fe in May this year -- though he should have been in Vienna to speak at the Freud Institute. But because there was this big brouhaha about what he did at the West Bank border, he was “dis-invited.” It’s a scandal. It should be so transparent to people. The whole incident of this rock-throwing which the NY Times stupidly revived is a two year-old dead issue and this is the third time they’ve run the photograph of Said throwing rocks at the Israeli border. Maybe the Times gets royalties every time they run that photograph! That’s unprecedented. Most recently, they devoted a quarter page to this non-issue…not a little two by four space.
LK: When you say that the Times stupidly revived the photo, how stupid is it?
DB: It’s very stupid. At the border post -- which is unoccupied -- you have hundreds and hundreds of people there doing the same thing. But they pick out one Columbia University professor whom they have a particular interest in defaming for an ideological interest.
LK: You mean stupid for us. What they’re doing intellectually is indefensible. But from a propagandistic standpoint, I don’t know how stupid it is.
DB: Incidentally, Said won’t sign Armenian petitions. Peter Balakian requested him to. I’ve asked Said about it. He said it’s a quid pro quo issue. “Where are these people on Palestine?” he asks. And the answer is nowhere. It shows you the weakness of the Armenian position here in terms of building alliances and intersecting with other groups that could be allies. Said went to school with Armenians. The first time we met, he said “Eench bes es, Baron?” There were a lot of Armenian kids at the schools he went to in Cairo and Jerusalem. One of his best friends is Nubar Hovsepian, a university professor. Said is informed of Armenian issues.
Antranig Kasbarian: There’s no question that he’s got to be informed and that Armenian political groupings are not doing the necessary outreach -- as you say, intersecting with other groups and movements. But at the same time, this presupposes that Said has made some sort of effort and has been rebuffed. For him to refuse to sign a petition and then say “Well what have the Armenians done?” leads me to believe that an effort has been made.
DB: He has tried to get support. The people that support Palestine you can count on one hand: Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens, Rashid Khalidi. It’s a handful of them that have some visibility and clout.
LK: Do you think the mainstream Armenian community is playing it cautious in pursuit of its own position?
DB: There’s a timidity there. I talked about this once to an Armenian group in Denver around April 24 one year. I was met with blank stares. Half the people there were from Lebanon. It was around the time of the 1982 Israeli invasion. I said “Lebanon is getting destroyed right in front of you’re your eyes and your tax dollars are paying for it.” They said “Eench bidi enenk? Kordz choonink ayndegh.” (What are we going to do? It’s none of our business.) And they meant it and from their perspective, they’re right. For a mercantile community that’s devoted to commerce uber alles, eeragan kordz chigah (literally, there is no business to be done). It’s gone, that’s the past. They’re busy Americanizing themselves.
AK: I think there are various shades of indifference and reluctance to get involved in other movements. One is this mercantile thing. Immigrant communities interested in Americanizing themselves, sticking to the straight and narrow, not taking any risks. But there are other things, too. There is a dilemma for people like Peter Balakian. I view him as a mainstreamer. He is looking to gain critical access to the liberal mainstream for our cause -- which is certainly a worthy endeavor if you’re trying to get publicity for an off-center issue like the Armenian Genocide. But with the liberal mainstream, you also sacrifice some things. And one thing we’ve sacrificed (and I don’t mean to single out Peter; many Armenians have done this) is that they aim for the mainstream and don’t aim for the margins in terms of coalition-building.
DB: That’s where the allies are. The allies are not in the sub-divisions or the trailer parks. Most of my radio success has been in the mainstream. The biggest response I get is from very conservative NPR stations. I’m on Montana Public Radio, can you believe that? But you can’t hear me on WNYC in New York -- the most liberal city in the country -- or WGBH in Boston. In fact the eastern corridor from Boston to Miami is a complete lock-out. The people that control public broadcasting are extremely conservative and refuse to push the envelope. They’re career bureaucrats.
LK: How do you compare that attitude to what you’re seeing with Montana Public Radio?
DB: The West is different. AR is broadcast all over the states of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington State, Idaho, and California. That’s were the bulk of people hear my programs. There’s a station in Albany that reaches Western Massachusetts, Western Connecticut, Southern Vermont and even up to Southern Quebec. And sometimes I’m on Maine Public Radio. And that’s when it gets interesting. If you are preaching to the choir then you’ve essentially failed. The choir needs information, so you don’t want to abandon the choir. They must be kept up to speed. They’ve got to feel that they’re not these crazy nuts thinking funny ideas. But unless you can expand the spectrum, it’s a one-note samba. So the American Left has abandoned getting to core constituencies and just concerns itself with things like “Was Alger Hiss guilty? Were the Rosenbergs framed? Was Stalin right? Was Trotsky wrong?” As if these are the really important questions that young people today want to know.
LK: How does this relate to the corporate takeover of Pacifica Radio, for example?
DB: Well in that case, there is a definite move by the Board of Pacifica to mainstream the network. It’s about means and ends. They want to expand their audience and I think that’s great. But the means that they’ve adopted, if that’s their stated end, are abominable. The lack of skill, lack of finesse, and in some instances outright cruelty and nastiness (particularly in NY with WBAI radio, where people are getting locked out and verbally and physically harassed) is insane.
If these retrograde actions are not reversed soon, they will succeed in destroying the major electronic progressive network in the country. There’s corporate public radio like WNYC in New York, and then there’s community public radio like WBAI. At these corporate-run stations, it’s top-down management where you can’t raise your eyebrows in front of your supervisors. It’s tightly controlled. No dissidents there.
But at these community stations, which have a lot of volunteer input, where there is conflict, it’s different. And I know this just from my own experience in Boulder at KGNU. The station went belly-up in 1980, and almost lost its license. A group of us in town ousted the board, reconstituted a new one, and took over the station. We did three straight weeks of fundraising to get enough money to put the station back on its feet. It came within a hair’s breadth of losing its frequency and maybe they don’t understand this yet at Pacifica, but once you lost the frequency, it doesn’t come back. You can’t borrow it again like a library book after someone else has read it.
These are extremely valuable properties and the management’s talking about selling one or two of the major stations like WBAI in New York, KPFA in Berkeley, and buying stations in the South. Well, look at that for a moment. Here you are abandoning the largest and third or fourth largest markets in the country for what? Gaston, Alabama? Chocktaw, South Carolina? What kind of media strategy is that?
Furthermore, they are really out of touch with their own communities. African-Americans in the Deep South are extremely conservative. They would have a very hard time with radical left politics. It’s a deeply church-rooted community and this stuff would never go over. They would rather listen to gospel chime hour and watch CNN News than hear Amy Goodman of WBAI. Again, the management is not in touch with reality. You don’t give up aces in a card game for 8s and 9s. It’s just nuts and that’s what they’re talking about.
On January 31, Juan Gonzales, the NY Daily News columnist, a founder of the Young Lords, and weekly co-host of “Democracy Now!” on WBAI, resigned in the air in a live broadcast. It was immediately censored on affiliate Pacifica stations -- remember this is free speech radio. He called on listeners to financially withhold contributions to Pacifica Radio. It was a very radical step. Gonzales and others have formed a Pacifica Campaign, headquartered in the basement of left-leaning lawyer Bill Kuntsler’s brownstone in Greenwich Village. The Kuntsler family is entirely supportive.
There are six or seven people like Bernard White, the fired program director and others working there to save Pacifica. It’s a very important battle and I’m asked about it everywhere to try to make sense of it and explain why it’s going on. It’s about politics. It’s about organizing. It’s about building and not burning bridges.
AK: Let’s talk about building bridges to the mainstream … liberal, conservative or otherwise, and the idea of preaching to the choir. I think people will agree with you that you can’t spend time preaching to the choir when what’s required right now is outreach-oriented activism. But that pre-supposes certain things. It pre-supposes that you define yourself as a progressive or as someone working towards social change. You have to define first what the choir is and what it is that your trying to reach out for. If you’re talking about democratic socialism in America or the Young Communist League or other left-oriented organizations, I think the message is clear to stop preaching to the choir so much and start reaching out.
What I’m more concerned about is that there are a lot of people -- take the Armenians for a moment -- who consider themselves to be political activists in the Diasporan context who haven’t anchored themselves within the progressive movement, for whom activism means working through established institutions like Congress and the mainstream media. Too often we simplify the Genocide issue through these established, entrenched power networks.
DB: And they are too often at five-star dinners and banquets where some politician might show up. It’s such a victim attitude. The attitude of the pauper is “Master, look at me. Pay attention. I am worthy of your gaze.” This is the mentality of the “house negro” referred to by Malcolm X when he makes the distinction between the house negro and the field negro. The house negro says, “Massa, you sick? You know I’ll look after you.” The field negro, on the other hand, says, “Die, you bugger.”
AK: Which often gets justified when people say “We have to work within the system and learn to become players.”
DB: You want to have an inside-outside strategy. I’m not totally dissing an inside strategy -- which is what that is. But you have to have an outside strategy too. Manning Marable, a well-known activist-professor at Columbia University, makes this point.
AK: That’s in tune with what I’m thinking. When you’re trying to mainstream your message you’ve got to be sure you’re not mainstream. You’ve got to develop a certain critical consciousness and then think strategically about where to reach out and develop an inside-outside strategy.
I think the Armenian community largely has not gotten out of its Cold War-era thinking, which is that “we need to learn how to become acceptable members of this system and learn how to work through politically accessible means,” which is hopelessly conservative.
The idea of bringing the Armenian Cause into articulation with other movements, say national liberation movements, which would seem a no-brainer point of entry for Armenians. That is something that gained some root in the 1970s and 80s amongst certain elements of the Armenian community but never really made lasting inroads.
DB: I think there’s a reason for that. It’s the endemic racism which I’ve encountered time and time again. In Armenia, and in fact, throughout the Middle East, it’s ferocious. Armenians exhibit scandalous attitudes towards those host countries who gave them life and haven. There is a belief that Arabs are sub-human and their culture is inferior. Turks are unspeakable and untouchable.
I think that tendency extends to Armenians here as well. Since I’ve been in Colorado, having left New York City in 1978, I’ve come into contact with some of these new arrivals from Armenia and elsewhere. They bring all their racist baggage with them and transfer it to Blacks and Latinos, for example.
I have a lot of trouble with that. I can’t abide by it. The two countries I have been most turned off by, aside from the United States, are Israel and Armenia. The similarities are striking. In terms of the codification of victimhood which gives permission to do, think, and say anything. There is an “I have sufferered, so I have a permanent ‘Get out of Jail’ pass for eternity,” and “you have no right to question me” attitude. That’s one thing. The other thing that I found similar is intense materialism -- which may be compensation for victimhood. Everybody’s got the gimmes, and are making deals. Look at Israel. Everything is a deal.
LK: When were you last in Armenia from which to observe?
DB: Just in 1979 when it was part of the “worker’s paradise.” I took my mother on a trip from hell. I was the youngest person in a group of old-timers, all survivors from the Yergir. So I went. I got smashed night and day. It started at 8 in the morning with “a toast to your dead grandmother!”
I’ve never drank so much and I haven’t since. Alcohol is like a catechism there. A ritual that replaces the Badarak (Divine Liturgy). Think of the social consequences of that. The abuse. The domestic violence, Not to mention total incapacitation and huge health problems. They all smoke like chimneys.
LK: You’re Armenian by birth. Do you feel connected to the Armenian community?
DB: I don’t feel connected to Armenians. Yes, on a visceral level, I feel Armenian. The hardest interview I ever did was with my own mother, a Genocide survivor. It was just heartbreaking.
AK: There are advantages as well as limitations to having that perspective. I’d love to find a way for you to go to Karabagh. When I go there, I really get the feeling that these people have waged an anti-colonial struggle. For a long time, they were subjected to racist policies.
No doubt there’s plenty of Armenian racism to go around, but when you see people waging a struggle within a system of unequal power relations, you start to look at it a little differently and make comparisons -- at least I do -- to movements that took place in the Third World. Activities in Algeria, for example, were certainly justified but also resulted in a certain Afrocentrism and a certain brand of cultural nationalism that had its own extremist bent.
Struggles in Karabagh and Algeria are not strictly comparable, they’re emerging in different contexts. Karabagh is an outpost of the Soviet Empire which in a way was a Russian nesting doll containing smaller dolls. Russian nationality policies gave republics including Azerbaijan more or less a free hand after Stalin’s death to settle their own minority issues as they wished.
And beginning in the 1960s he Azeris gradually found different ways -- from overt cultural repression to more subtle policies such as developing new settlements encircling Karabagh -- that gradually sucked capital and people out of the region and depopulated it.
And it’s an interesting story, not strictly comparable to Algeria or other political struggles, but the point of comparison for me is to say -- what are the possibilities as well as the limitations of nationalism as a liberatory course for oppressed peoples?
And the Armenians have been a subjugated people who I think are right to resist the mainstream depiction of backward, xenophobic people involved in age-old ethnic feuds. Because when you talk about Karabagh as inter-ethnic strife, rather than a national liberation movement, it levels the playing field in unhelpful ways.
Imagine talking about the Algerian struggle in terms of interethnic war: The Algerians hate the French. The French hate the Algerians. There’s going to be bloodshed. We need to stop racism, mutual hatred, and so on. It’s more helpful to ask, how do you resist colonial rule -- which Azerbaijan’s rule over Karabagh qualifies as -- without turning nationalism into a fetish? My work on the Karabagh struggle involves looking at the possibilities, and weighing them against the pitfalls, of using nationalism as your main driving force. It takes you only so far.
DB: It is limited. While the Armenian struggle is just, I think what the Armenians there are doing in some ways resembles what the Israelis are doing today. They are on top right now. This is not a long-term survival strategy. This is short term. In the case of Israel, they are welling up mountains of loathing and hatred that’s very deep-seated. And it will manifest itself down the road in violent and destructive ways.
Of course the comparison is not parallel because Israel is settler-colonialist. The population was transferred from elsewhere. I think nationalism can be very dangerous. You see its effects in India and Pakistan. It’s like a genie you can’t get back into a bottle. It’s rooted in the idea of “the other” and demonizing that other. One’s national identity is somehow superior. And it can be laced with racism and misogyny.
AK: Aren’t there nationalisms that are more inclusive? What would Edward Said say? He’s a nationalist.
DB: Would he criticize the nationalist movement? He’d say that the Palestinians have failed miserably in outreach. They have never taken a moment to try to understand the US society and how it works. They’re all into deals. They sit smoking in a back room. All men. They say “Yeah, I know what your position is for the press. Now tell me how we’re gonna work this out.”
In Arabic, it’s called zaim, which is what you call the tribal chief. It’s all about zaim relationships. It’s not about civil society or democracy. It’s a horrendously-led movement. With the relative advantages the Palestinians have had (they’ve had a few), they haven’t played one single card properly. Arafat and the whole Fatah leadership have failed miserably. And Said broke with them.
AK: To what extent do we lay those failures at the doorstep of Nationalism? To what degree do we lay at that doorstep of a certain incompetence, or a chauvinist zaim way of running politics that is not rooted in the people but rooted in me and my nergula in the backroom? I don’t meanto imply an uncritical acceptance of nationalism, It’s seriously limited and needs to be deployed strategically. Perhaps part of my soft spot is seeing the things that nationalism has provided.
DB: It does provide identity, but it’s a lot like so-called humanitarian type interventions. It has a very sketchy and spotty record. Many interventions have turned into catastrophes. Look at the Balkans.
AK: I used to get into these arguments with Neil Smith, a geographer who is a Trotskyist, and a former Socialist party member in America. And he says “Show me one nationalist movement that has succeeded.” And I reply “Show me one Trotskyist movement that has succeeded.”
DB: They’re not comparable.
AK: Some people say Trotskyism failed strategically in warding off Stalinism, and that a harder line early on in the USSR may have prevented the ravages of Stalinism from coming about.
DB: Maybe. It’s hard to say. One can have 20-20 vision in hindsight. I don’t want to fight those battles, by the way, as I alluded to earlier when I said “was Trotsky right?”
AK: Well, I guess I’m being baited into this battle because I’m not interested in fighting them, either! What I guess I’m saying is that we can lay enough failures at the doorstep of any ideology. The key is to construct better ones based on what we think is right. I’m not ready to throw socialism out with the bathwater, but there are plenty of socialist failures that have had a lot of serious consequences for a lot of people around the world. So the question then becomes not “how do we throw socialism out?” but “how do we reformulate it and make it work for most people?”
DB: And you see that scenario evolving in the Caucasus?
AK: Not in the near future.
DB: I didn’t think so. The “hang on for dear life” scenario is the impression I have.
AK: I think a big problem in the Caucasus is that nationalism becomes a repository for all kinds of would-be movements. People are concerned about corruption or re-militarization. For a thousand-and-one ills, the solution has become nationalism. Too often the solution is “We need people who are real Russians or real Armenians who can bring us back to where things were supposed to be in an idealized past.” I think the idea of building bottom-up social movements hasn’t found its time yet.
DB: I probably know more about South Asia than I do about the Caucasus. It’s particularly turbulent there right now. Take the growth of Hindu fundamentalism in India and Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. Both countries have nuclear weapons, so it’s not just a neighborhood gang rumble we’re talking about. This could have enormous consequences and again you see, playing to the galleries, a failure of civil society to address genuine grievances. There are hierarchical, caste structures in both countries. So there, nationalism has been pretty ugly.
AK: A social theorist once said, “we need to find ways to account for those things that nationalism provides and utilize them in new settings.”
LK: Where do you see young people heading today -- Armenian or not? There is a diminished interest in political organizing or community service. What do you think would be effective in the 21st century to counterbalance what consumerism, corporate interests and media monopolies may do to dilute independent thought and even ethnic pride?
DB: Cynicism is immobilizing but skepticism is empowering. Wherever I go, I advocate skepticism. Cynicism -- the great dis-enabler -- has done in everyone from personal relationships to business relationships. If you’ve been to Seattle -- there are mostly young people there -- and seen the demonstrations against the IMF-World Bank-Global Trade Agreement scenario, it s the young people that are galvanized and fed up.
What are you looking forward to if you’re a kid growing up today? A 9 to 5 job in some mindless corporation working in front of a computer? That’s your future, whether you’re trained in journalism or any field you care to name. And that’s not appealing to a lot of people who want to express their creativity.
See what’s happening in radio? There has been a leveling of creativity. There’s tremendous concentration. Clear Channel Corporation now has 1200 radio stations in the United States. They are the dominant player in the country. What does that mean when you turn on your radio in most parts of the country? Formatted music.
In fact, my colleagues are all going up to Quebec City to protest the Summit of the Americas -- to negotiate the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. There’s more activity than there was a few years ago. People are connecting the dots.
AK: I tend to agree, but there are differences. Let’s look at the last blip on the curve in the last several decades -- heightened activism in the 1960s extending into the early 70s. That seemed to get a lot more play in the mainstream because of the way media was structured in those days. You had mainstream media run by actual journalists -- even when there was a bottom-line mentality. Now 30 years later, the business office runs journalism and it’s a little harder to get the word out that there is in fact a groundswell.
DB: However, I think there is a lot of information out there. It’s like samizdat in the former Soviet Union. Everyone takes a tape and makes a copy of it to give to a friend. Everyone has a tape player -- it’s the cheapest method of distribution there is. There is a lot of informal distribution of news.
The Internet is a very powerful tool and completely derailed the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), which was going to be the crowning jewel just before the WTO. No one heard about the MAI. It was not reported on in the United States. And information started being circulated on the Internet and there was a huge uprising and it got stopped dead in its tracks.
The same thing happened with Fast Track, which President Bush is trying to revive right now. It’s largely an Internet operation. With the demonstrations we’ve seen in Seattle, Melbourne, Prague, and Quebec City, a lot of it is Internet-generated.
So there is new media we have to take advantage of. Are people callous and apathetic? Of course they are. And yet the power brokers have built barricades around themselves. No WTO meeting can now take place without police protection for participants against the public. Look at what happened in Davos, Switzerland and Prague, Czechoslovakia. Wherever these WTO meetings are held, the organizers are getting “outed.”
There’s a lot of ferment, and that’s something I wouldn’t have said in 1992. People were still anesthetized. After the 60s and 70s, there was a tremendous amount of repression. Everything from physical repression, assassinations, exile, deportations, legal actions derailing radical formations like the Young Lords, Black Panthers and Native American movements. It took a long time for people to recover from that. And there was a big propaganda effort to reconstruct imperialist ideology. That ideology was shaken by the US debacle in Indochina. It took elites over a decade to reconstruct it.
LK: So why East Timor now? After all these years of corruption, why is Indonesia being exposed now in media? What leverage is the US trying to gain?
DB: Indonesia has been exposed for being a terribly corrupt, narcoleptic state, that oppresses large segments of its own population -- much like Turkey. That’s what Indonesia uses US arms for -- again much like Turkey. In Turkey’s case, it also uses them to attack Iraq. Turkey uses most of the Us-provided arms against its domestic population. This is something Armenians could bring up, but I’ve never heard it mentioned. Doing this is illegal under US law. The Export Arms Control Act unambiguously states that US weapons cannot be deployed against the domestic population. The arms are to be used for self-defense against external aggression.
AK: There’s a deceased writer, Leo Sarkisian, who addresses just that.
DB: This topic doesn’t come up in shows like “Washington Week in Review.” That Turks used US weapons on its Kurdish population or that Turkey has violated the sovereignty of Iraq. And if the US had any kind of single standard, then the territorial integrity of Iraq would be as important as that of Kuwait. But Turkey, like Israel, has a permanent “Get out of Jail” pass. Turkey is further sanctified because of its alliance. Tacitly, a brilliant move. Why? Because it has aligned itself with the influential domestic Jewish lobby that supports the policies of Israel.
Geopolitically, this fits in with Washington’s age-old strategy to isolate the Arabs. They use to use Turkey, Iran and Pakistan to do so. They’ve lost Iran. They’ve lost Pakistan (though it’s making a comeback because of the post Sept. 11 Afghan situation). So they’re very keen on keeping Turkey in that alliance so that it can be used as a tool to slam the Arabs.
AK: And it extends Turkey’s hegemony eastward.
DB: Indeed, into the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. On the Armenian Genocide, there’s no doubt about why Clinton said there was a national security interest in squashing the most recent, innocuous non-binding resolution in the House. What was this unspecified national security interest? Can anyone say Baku-Ceyhan pipeline? The unspecified national interest was enough for Hastert, Speaker of the House, to drop the whole thing. They can read hieroglyphs. It’s outrageous.
And the extent to which American Jewish groups go on with the charade is criminal. I reject the idea that those who have suffered are more sensitive to suffering. As if it has to be out of your life experience in order for you to feel anything. Historical suffering doesn’t endow you genetically with some insight or understanding. The idea that Israelis are more sensitive because they have suffered is fantasy.
LK: Do you think our history of repression and our desire to redress claims to justice makes us more sensitive to other people’s claims to justice?
DB: Not automatically. What is Karabagh? In my opinion, it’s a continuation of Zeitoun, Moush, Bitlis, Musa Dagth. It’s another one of those struggles.
LK: It must seem to you as if Armenians carry emotional baggage from those injustices over to today. And you probably think those territories are part of ancient Armenian history now. These lands are devoid of Armenians and yet they will always be Armenia to us by any other name…whether we live there today or not. As for Karabagh, why should we relinquish areas in which native Armenians still live? These people are rooted in the land and they are fighting for their freedom. They see patterns of persecution that overlap the centuries.
DB: I don’t doubt what you’re saying, but for the Armenians in the States, there’s a lot of grandstanding. It’s not their lives at risk.
LK: There’s no doubt that there are armchair patriots. But historically, Armenian Karabagh has been in turmoil for many centuries, not just decades. This is not coming out of left field, and it’s unfair to say that the majority of Armenians on the land as well as abroad are willing to give up Karabagh.
DB: That was an overstatement on my part. I don’t know if I answered your question, but I do see a lot of activity among young people.
LK: What are your thoughts regarding Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide and US hegemony vis-à-vis Turkey? And Israel’s lack of support or even outright obstructionism regarding the Armenian Genocide?
DB: Turkey has been constructed in the US cosmos as a strategic ally. This had some plausibility during the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union there seems to be a veneer regarding why this is continuing and has not been examined. The alliance with Israel has something to do with it as well as the ongoing war against Iraq and the use of Turkish bases.
But Turkey as a strategic ally, as constructed on the Cold War pattern, does not hold up. The US position on the Armenian Genocide is cynical at worst, criminal at best. I can’t find words to express my indignation at the inability of a country to clearly acknowledge and recognize historical facts -- facts that are documented in its own archives.
One of the things I admire about Dr. Vahakn Dadrian is that he does not use any Armenian sources. He uses German, Turkish, French, American and British sources. No one can turn around and call him an Armenian nationalist or biased because he used Armenian sources.
LK: What message would you send to the Armenian community regarding their approaches toward Genocide recognition in this country?
DB: I would say to them, “where you think your allies are, they are not. They are paper tigers. They are two-faced. They’ll shake your hand at your banquets and accept your campaign contribution. And when it comes to the vote on the Senate floor or comes to the White House intervening, they are not there for you. They are about real-politik. They are into placating and pacifying you. Keeping the rabble in line. We could be talking about any political issue here. This banquet chasing thing has been a total disaster and it should be transparent to people that it doesn’t work and it doesn’t pay off in a concrete way.
I think the attitude has to be re-examined regarding supplicant and victim. This is not about the victim going to the king to plead for rights. This is about justice and principles, not about obedience and being polite. Armenians are way too polite. Armenians need to engage in a democratic, principled way in culture and politics.
High-handedness, or projecting the role of the wounded victim is something I totally reject. You can’t mount any kind of political or moral struggle from that position. Then you are arguing an emotional struggle, and that’s why the Armenians keep getting crushed. This is about lying and state mendacity. When you have the power and the force of a state with all the weapons of repression, control and propaganda, it’s not a small thing. And that the Israelis and elements of the American Jewish community, particularly lobbying groups, participate in this cover-up and Genocide denial is scandalous.
LK: What would you like to say about coalition building?
DB: I think it’s really important to reach out to other groups who are also struggling for justice, like Native Americans. What happened to them is analogous to what happened to Armenians in Anatolia when in the 11th century Seljuk tribes came out of Central Asia. It is the same as what Europeans did to North and South America. The conquistadors came here, wiped out the indigenous population, denied them their identity, forbade them from speaking their language or educating their young, co-opted some aspects of their culture, confiscated their lands and put them in camps called reservations. It’s a very powerful case.
Angela Davis once said “Victimization cannot be permitted to function as a halo of innocence.” It may seem like a truism, but it’s worth saying. It does not privilege you or anyone to oppress or repress any other individual or ethnic group. To overcome one’s own and one’s group’s prejudices is important.
And I think this plays out in the way some wealthy Armenians cater to this funning lackey dog strategy of kissing the asses of US politicians who just blow them off. Kurds in Turkey, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans are among those who are trying to redress historic wrongs. Armenians must make an effort of build bridges with these peoples.
LK: Do you have any other reasons for not becoming involved in Armenian affairs?
DB: I grew up in a tribal situation. I saw the tribalism really limit the group. Their whole definition of self was from the village. I understood why this was so. When you are targeted for persecution, you really close ranks. So I saw that with this whole generation with which I grew up.
I’m 55 now, so when I grew up in the 1950s, these were all survivors in their 50s and 60s. What I saw disturbed me very much. It reminds me of what Eqbal Ahmad said in a book I recently released with South End Press.
As I grew older, I shied away from the closeness which those historical circumstances produced. I don’t think they had much of a choice. Members of my family were not that educated. They did not have the advantages, say, that Peter Balakian’s family had. They were doctors and lawyers in the Old Country. The group I was with were the country bumpkins, the yokels. They barely had command of their mother tongue.
That may be one reason and reaction. What happened to Armenia and Turkey was so abnormal. It was like a child being ripped from its mother’s womb after being there for a millennium and being tossed into the East Bronx. That has got to be an absolutely catastrophic, wrenching experience. Perhaps with some intellectual tools, you could have the ability to rationalize it or find a way to explain it. This group did not have those advantages nor could they verbalize what happened.
My father was a grocer because everyone from the village he came from was a grocer. So he apprenticed himself in one owned by a Paloutsi. Maybe it was that. I very much wanted to be an American when I was a kid. When my mother spoke to me in Armenian on the streets, I wanted to crawl under the nearest sewer. I was so humiliated. I couldn’t invite friends home because we were so different. We didn’t have American food. We weren’t Catholic. I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood on New York’s Upper East Side. There was a lot of discomfort in my not being able to successfully integrate my ethnicity.
I rediscovered it in India in a curious way. It took for me to leave to be able to come back. I am a product of that background and what happened from 1894 to the present has left a mark on me. I feel solidarity with other people in similar circumstances. Armenians should be in the forefront, speaking out against oppression, injustice, and genocide wherever it occurs.
LK: It sounds as if by becoming a citizen of the world via India, your Armenian pride grew in you, too. Is there anything aside from the Genocide within the Armenian realm that has captured your interest?
DB: I love the music of Sayat Nova. And Gomidas’ folk songs and what he did for Armenian folk music in preserving songs that would have been lost. He was an ethnomusicologist going into the countryside to collect folk songs at the brink of the oral tradition being wiped out. Those oral traditions can never be retrieved. It is an inestimable loss to the community, to world culture, and to civilization. It is the oral culture in India that attracted me. I met rickshaw drivers who could recite beautiful Urdu poetry but couldn’t write their names. There’s literacy and then there’s literacy.
AK: How about Armenia in the post-Soviet context?
DB: I’m kind of leery. I’m not a big fan of nationalism even though in Armenia you have a state that was crushed in the 1300s and rose again in 1991. For 600 years people held on to this idea. I am a devotee of communities and communities that intersect. I don’t want to sound holier than thou, but there is a certain value to tribalism and a preservation of a culture like recipes, dialects, phrases, idioms, musical compositions, and other traditions. This comes not from cultural expansion but contraction. And so to be objective, you have to recognize that there is value in this. Those kinds of things are precious.
AK: The irony is, nationalist scholars are notorious for revising what was -- and you recreate what you imagined the community to be 100 years ago. You said something great. A lot of Armenian nationalists say “for 600 years, we were waiting for the re-emergence of Armenian statehood.” Really, the idea of a state for the Armenians didn’t come about until the second decade of the 20th century. Armenians in the 1880s and 1890s were fighting for reforms under the Sultan -- we were not thinking of liberation in the form of statehood. It came much later for Armenians, the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
The idea of a liberation struggle to create a state was a new idea. It’s only been since then, particularly in the Diaspora, where it fulfills a psychological and cultural need to re-inscribe the modern nation onto an ideal of the past -- to harken back to King Levon of 1393 or Vartan Mamigonian when Armenians had sovereign self-ruling arrangements and rulers extending back to antiquity and how we need to restore this. The fact is, this has rarely been the case.
DB: One of the tragedies of Armenian history has been the predominance of the church at the expense of developing a civil society. There was no civil society. Everything was channeled through this magical sectarian Institution. It ill-prepared people for the catastrophe that was about to befall them because we didn’t have cadres, leadership or a secular democratic movement. Not that it would have been easy to form under Ottoman rule, but I think the role of the church is not discussed in an objective way because it is the very embodiment of our identity. They are inseparable. And the Armenian Church has assiduously carved that role out for itself and incessantly proclaims it. You see it with some Arachnorts" (Archbishops), for example. Some keep it going when they note that “We are the embodiment.” Some make political pronouncements when they should tend to liturgical matters. We should have a civil culture that takes care of that.
This issue is something that hasn’t been discussed very much. At a time in the 1860s and 70s when clearly there was major ferment going on around the world -- in Italy, Germany, Lebanon and elsewhere -- Armenia was still in its feudal trap. Modernism did not come, except to some enclaves like Izmir and Constantinople, of course. But modernism was completely cut off, if by that we mean the growth of the enlightenment ideas about equality, freedom, and democracy. That was completely locked out of the heartland for Armenians -- and Turks as well.
AK: The Armenian Diaspora had a huge role in exporting some of these ideas into the heartland. Not only from the West -- from Izmir and Constantinople -- but from the East -- from Baku and Tiflis -- all big Armenian population centers. The Tashnags were formed initially in Tiflis. The organization wasn’t founded in the Armenian heartland.
DB: And the exact same thing was true with the Committee for Union and Progress. They were on the outside looking in. Kemal, Jemal and Talaat were all from Salonika. And that’s not unusual. Same thing with the Zionist movement. There were few Zionists in Palestine. They were mostly from Vienna and Warsaw.
LK: In closing what can Armenian Weekly readers and our Armenian-American youth do to acquaint themselves with world politics, support independent thought, and counterbalance the efforts of media monopolies?
DB: Post Sept 11, the current crisis and war provide textbook examples of media propaganda, manipulation and the induced, what George Orwell called “groupthink.”
The official story is a virtual non-stop monochromatic, one-note Samba: They, the “evildoers,” hate us. They hate our values and who we are. From CNN and Fox to Time and NPR.
There is little discussion of politics, false flags, and/or the underlying causes of terrorism. The uniformity of opinion is striking. It should give anyone pause. Rather than being obedient and passive absorbers of news and information, we should be proactive. Be skeptical. Ask questions. Probe. Think outside the box. Look for alternative, independent sources like fair.org, indymedia.org and alternativeradio.org.
Read the international press like The Guardian, Le Monde and the Independent. Study books by Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Arundhati Roy, and Angela Davis. Support progressive publishers like South End Press and Common Courage Press. Take off your ideological blinders. Examine your assumptions.
Once you strip away the veneer of the constructed version of events it becomes rather easy. It’s not neuro-surgery and requires no special training or talent. Go to a local video store and rent “Matewan” and “The Battle of Algiers.” Both should be required viewing for all Armenian-American youth.
Young people in particular need to de-link themselves from the propaganda grid. Thinking outside the box is fun, challenging and exciting. Build networks and alliances with kindred spirits. Create your own media. Musician-activist Jello Biafra advises that we stop whining and “become the media.”
In fighting back and building positive alternatives, we fulfill ourselves as citizens and human beings. Rumi, the Sufi poet, was born in Afghanistan. He is the greatest poet in Persian and one of the greatest in any language. His fame and reputation are such that three countries claim him: his birthplace Afghanistan, Iran -- for he wrote in Farsi, and Turkey -- where he is buried. But he belongs to all of us. And his words inspire many today. Almost a thousand years ago he wrote, “The meaning of a mystery does not arrive through the mind, but to do some service and it becomes clear.”