Noam Chomsky speaks better than I can write. He can recite quotes from peer-reviewed journals as if he’s reading them. The man doesn’t even need to write books anymore; he can simply dictate them. His latest collection of interviews with C.J. Polychroniou originally published in Truthout might be called Optimism over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change, but Chomsky only chooses to be optimistic about the state of the world despite little reason for doing so. “What choice do we have?” he asks at the end.
While the same topics and answers are repeated in some of the interviews, much of what’s repeated warrants repetition. Chomsky understandably considers nuclear arms and climate change the biggest threats to the future of the human race, and those threats are more threatening than ever before. Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) reinforces the legitimacy of Chomsky’s concern.
“It is quite remarkable to see how little concern top planners show for the prospects of their own destruction--not a novelty in world affairs (those who initiated wars often ended up devastated) but now on a hugely different scale” (60).
Chomsky was speaking of nuclear weapons here, but it’s applicable to climate change as well, especially now that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt has announced the end to a rule limiting greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants, proclaiming the end to the “War on Coal” and exacerbating the “War on the World.”
The business class has little concern over nuclear war because there’s little they can do about it. They have even less concern over their own destruction via man-made climate change because they assume they won’t be around for that destruction. But they will be around to spend the money they “earn” by destroying the Earth and the quality of living for everyone on it, even putting the homes of island peoples under water in a world where nationalism is closing borders to refugees.
“With considerable justice, Bangladesh’s leading climate scientist says that ‘These migrants should have the right to move to the countries from which all these greenhouse gases are coming. Millions should be able to go to the United States.’ And to the other rich countries that have grown wealthy while bringing about a new geological era, the Anthropocene, marked by radical human transformation of the environment” (121).
That really should be the punishment for America leaving the Paris Agreement, but mainstream media hasn’t done its job conveying vital information regarding climate change either, especially during the 2016 Presidential Election.
“The most important news of November 8 was barely noted, a fact of some significance in itself. On November 8, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) delivered a report at the international conference on climate change in Morocco (COP22), which was called in order to carry forward the Paris agreement of COP21. The WMO reported that the past five years were the hottest on record. It reported rising sea levels, soon to increase as a result of the unexpectedly rapid melting of polar ice, most ominously the huge Antarctic glaciers. Already, Arctic sea ice over the past five years is 28 percent below the average of the previous twenty-nine years, not only raising sea levels but also reducing the cooling effect of polar ice reflection of solar rays, thereby accelerating the grim effects of global warming. The WMO reported further that temperatures are approaching dangerously close to the goal established by COP21, along with other dire reports and forecasts” (119-120).
But Chomsky doesn’t ignore the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. He tells us what really happened with the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election in a few pages while Hillary Clinton needed an entire book.
“Trump’s appeal seems based largely on perceptions of loss and fear. The neoliberal assault on the world’s populations, almost always harmful to them, and often severely so, has not left the United States untouched, even though it has been somewhat more resilient than others. The majority of the populations has endured stagnation or decline while extraordinary and ostentatious wealth has accumulated in very few pockets. The formal democratic system has suffered the usual consequences of neoliberal socio-economic policies, drifting toward plutocracy.
No need to review again the grim details--for example, the stagnation of real male wages for forty years and the fact that since the last crash some 90 percent of wealth created has found its way to 1 percent of the population. Or the fact that the majority of the population--those lower on the income scale--are effectively disenfranchised in that their representatives ignore their opinions and preferences, heeding the super-rich funder and power brokers.
In part, Trump supporters--predominantly, it seems, lower-middle class, working class, less educated--are reacting to the perception, largely accurate, that they have simply been left by the wayside...Trump’s predominantly white supporters can see that their image of a white-run (and, for many, male-run) society is dissolving before their eyes. It is also worth remembering that although the United States is unusually safe and secure, it is also perhaps the most frightened country in the world, another feature of the culture with a long history” (113-14).
In short, a bunch of working-class, white males are fed up with the state of things in America and a woman in the White House is quite literally the last thing they want to see as their white man’s world slips away.
“There are other factors in Trump’s success. Comparative studies show that doctrines of white supremacy have had an even more powerful grip on American culture than in South Africa, and it’s no secret that the white population is declining. In a decade or two, whites are projected to be a minority of the work force, and not too much later, a minority of the population. The traditional conservative culture is also perceived as under attack by the successes of identity politics, regarded as the province of elites who have only contempt for the ‘hard-working, patriotic, church-going [white] Americans with real family values’ who see their familiar country as disappearing before their eyes” (124).
So is there reason for optimism given the state of American politics? Can things get better? Chomsky offers a few reasons for hope.
“There is a very interesting article by Andrew Cockburn...reviewing studies that show that an enormous amount of the money poured into political campaigns with TV ads, and the like, serves primarily to enrich the networks and the professional consultants but with little effect on voting. In contrast, face-to-face contact and direct canvassing, which are inexpensive--but require a lot of often volunteer labor--do have a measurable impact” (107).
Well at least all the money being spent on election campaigns isn’t swaying the opinion of voters. But the time politicians spend raising that money certainly limits what can be done on the people’s behalf. But are Americans fed up enough?
“The important question is: Are people motivated to do something about it? That depends on many factors, crucially including the means that they perceive to be available. It’s the task of serious activists to help develop those means and encourage people to understand that they are available” (55).
So if the American working class is willing to join together and act on their anger by getting involved in the political process they can expect change, right? Well, given the state of America’s alleged democracy, it might take more than getting out to vote. In fact, it likely requires, at the very least, the formation of an American workers’ party.
“Thirty-five years ago, political scientist Walter Dean Burnham identified ‘the total absence of a socialist or laborite mass party as an organized competitor in the electoral market’ as a primary cause of the high rate of abstention in US elections. Traditionally, the labor movement and labor-based parties have played a leading role in offering ways to ‘influence political outcomes’ within the electoral system and on the streets and shop floor. That capacity has declined significantly under neoliberal assault, which enhanced the bitter war waged against unions by the business classes throughout the postwar period...The Democrats, meanwhile, pretty much abandoned the working class” (56).
The interviews with Chomsky also touch on the historical inaccuracies and misinformed opinions shared by a majority of Americans concerning socialism and the violent history of American labor busting, on Cuba, the Wars on Terror, on Islam and American terrorism, specifically Barack Obama’s drone program, on capitalism’s incompatibility with democracy, on guns, on the minimum wage, on healthcare, on bailouts and consumerism, and on white supremacy and radical nationalism. The ultimate conclusion: “The democratic ideal, at home and abroad, is simple and straightforward: you are free to do what you want, as long as it is what we want you to do” (144).
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Addressing the United Nations for the first time, Donald Trump’s mouth brought the nuclear threat level to its highest point since the Cold War. Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if it continues its pursuit of nuclear weaponry capable of attacking American soil and said he wouldn’t hesitate to act alone. He should hesitate, however.
We’ve known this to be Trump’s stance since the featherweight, dick-measuring contest began between “Tiny Hands” Trump and North Korean dictator “Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un. Trump said Kim was on a suicide mission during his address to the UN, and he’s right. Kim’s life and the life of every North Korean depends on how comfortable Kim is in his own pants, which probably doesn’t leave many North Koreans comfortable.
The whole situation is terrible for North Koreans and has been since their “liberation” from Imperial Japan by the Soviets as a result of World War II. The communist Soviet Union and capitalist U.S. failed to negotiate a future for a united Korea during the Cold War, so Korea remains divided with the two Koreas still technically at war. But there’s no satisfaction for Kim in attacking South Korea -- only a successful attack on American soil will satisfy him.
Given the living conditions of North Koreans, consisting mostly of back-breaking work done despite so few calories consumed, we have a sense of how little Kim values the lives of his people. There is just one thing that concerns a dictator, and that’s the dynastic legacy. Kim has already starved his people to death and likely had his own brother killed, so Kim has played the part of ruthless dictator pretty well as far as Kim standards go. His father would be proud.
But if North Korea wages a devastating attack on the capitalist dogs, the Kim Dynasty and Kim Jong-un will be forever remembered as the rogue nation that got to the Americans. Kim has to decide whether the 160,000 American civilians and 7,000 American military personnel in Guam are worth the lives of roughly 25 million North Koreans. Kim could have attacked Guam yesterday, so it’s unlikely that’s his preferred target. It’s just one Kim can threaten right now.
A preventative attack on Pyongyang won’t necessarily prevent anything at all. If there’s anything we can assume, it’s that Kim has taken extreme measures to protect and preserve his ability to wage war. If America attacks first, Kim will go underground and be even more dangerous.
If the hunt for Osama bin Laden is any indication, Kim Jong-un should be well protected from a nuclear attack on North Korea. If an unorganized, terrorist organization relying on caves and flip phones can protect the most hunted man in the world for a decade, the North Korean military can protect Kim Jong-un for longer, even from a nuclear attack. It will be a bullet or a noose (or old age) that ends Kim Jong-un -- not a bomb.
A covert assassination attempt on Kim could be devastating if it fails. A failed assassination attempt on Kim would surely result in a counterattack by Kim. And if the assassination were successful, the United States would surely install leadership nearly as corrupt as Kim himself. It wouldn’t be the first time nor the last.
The best option for America is to negotiate a deal for the complete disarmament of nuclear weapons globally. This whole idea that having nuclear weapons prevents nuclear attacks is ridiculous and is the entire basis for the Kim Dynasty’s reason for pursuing nuclear weapons.
In the latest collection of interviews entitled Optimism Over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change, Noam Chomsky explains this ridiculousness thusly: “It is quite remarkable to see how little concern top planners show for the prospects of their own destruction...there was no plan, not even a thought, of reaching a treaty agreement that would have banned these weapons, though there is good reason to believe that it might have been feasible. The same attitudes prevail right to the present… (60).”
The only way to assure nuclear attacks won’t occur is to do away with every nuclear weapon in the world, but no country -- especially the United States -- is considering disarmament at a time like this, even if it should.
This is a moment when Trump and America need a little help from its friends. UN sanctions on North Korean trade won’t be enough to slow the country’s growing weapons collection. Trump even chastised Russia and China for continuing to do business with North Korea. China represents almost 85 percent of all North Korean trade, and 24 percent of Russia’s exports to North Korea are refined petroleum products that fuel the country’s missile and nuclear arms program.
The best thing Trump could do is stop threatening military action and ask China and Russia to stop trading with North Korea. What he’ll have to give up to get those concessions might not be to his liking, but neither is nuclear fallout. So what will it take to convince China and Russia to stop trading with North Korea?
China can’t be guaranteed that they won’t be attacked if they were to cut off just the .18 percent of its imports from and .28 percent of its exports to North Korea. That’s a total of just $5.29 billion in trade for a country that does over a trillion dollars in both imports and exports annually.
China desperately needs American investments in Chinese businesses to increase. Foreign domestic investment in China in 2016 was $170.557 billion -- the lowest it’s been since 2009. Now Trump can’t guarantee more American money will be invested in Chinese businesses if China stops trading with North Korea. Hell, he couldn’t say a bad word about Nazis and saw his entire business advisory councils resign. But he can close a business deal, allegedly, so this is an opportunity for Trump to do what he does best: collect and spend money.
For that $5.29 billion in trade China will have to find elsewhere, Trump should offer a bit of an investment in the country that struggles to attract foreign investors due to its state-controlled economy. There’s enough money in the White House and Congress to do so.
In 2011, the total net worth of the entire U.S. Congress was just under $5 billion, so there’s plenty of money that could be put together as an investment in Chinese businesses in exchange for them crippling North Korean trade. The problem with this option is it makes Kim Jong-un and North Koreans even more desperate and, perhaps, more war-willing.
Russia holds the key to the end of the North Korean conflict. Losing Russia as a trade partner won’t likely make the lives of North Koreans much worse, but it will slow the military’s “progress” towards a nuclear weapon that can reach American soil.
Russia’s exports to North Korea constitute .025 percent of all of its exports, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s what they export to North Korea that matters. With U.S. sanctions already in place against Russia for many reasons, there’s plenty of negotiating that could be done to get Russia on America’s side against North Korea. Some of those sanctions might even have an adverse effect on the rest of Europe, so there’s much for Vladimir Putin and Trump to discuss besides Russia’s involvement in the 2016 Presidential Election.
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Is another Cuban Missile Crisis at hand between the U.S. and North Korea? A little history can tell us just how dangerous a nuclear confrontation can be.
Fifty-four years ago, America faced another perilous moment and was on the brink of a nuclear war. The Russians were building missile sites in Cuba, allowing the potential for an all out nuclear attack on the United States. Younger Americans today are not aware of how close the world came to nuclear war, as historians would argue that this would become the most dangerous moment up to that time in human history.
In the fall of 1962, I had traveled to England to undertake post-graduate work in English Literature at Cambridge University. From breakfast seminars to daytime lectures, then afternoon readings and evening tutorials, I was immersed in English literature. International politics and foreign intrigue were the furthest things from my mind — that was, until the Cuban missile crisis.
I had rented a room in the house of an English family who lived a few blocks from the Cambridge campus. Mrs. Davenport, the lady of the house, awakened me at 2:00 A.M. on October 22, 1962. She said a neighbor had just called and told her to turn on the radio to hear a major press conference by President John F. Kennedy.
It was an extremely cold morning, and there was no central heating in the house, so I grabbed a blanket off my bed, threw it around me, and went downstairs to the living room. A fire was burning in the fireplace, and the Davenport family had gathered around the radio. President Kennedy was just beginning his remarks.
The President announced a naval blockade of Cuba, which he called a “quarantine.” He made it clear that any ship bound for Cuba that was carrying offensive missiles, or any other military hardware, would be stopped and turned back.
As he ended his speech, the neighbors from next door joined us in the living room. I was not sure how serious the matter was, but there was no doubt in the minds of my British hosts, who had lived the day-in, day-out horror of two world wars; they believed that we were on the brink of another world war, and they were devastated. The women in the room were crying. Eventually, everyone turned to me and asked why the President would want to start such hostility over a minor island south of Florida. I had no idea how to respond.
The next day several members of the Cambridge Union, the local debating society, approached. They had sought me out to debate America’s actions because I was one of very few Americans at Cambridge. I knew I was in over my head, and I needed help. The only place I could think of was the American Embassy in London; maybe someone there could give me some background information about why the blockade was necessary. After a ninety-minute train ride, I was in London by mid-day.
On my arrival at the Embassy, a staffer gave me a verbal briefing and a little background information. It is an understatement to say that I was lost in the forest of international conflict.
When I spoke up for the American position and tried to defend my country that evening, I was hissed and booed by the majority of the crowd. The Russians had stated that the only missiles in Cuba were “defensive,” and that America was the villain. Try as I might, I could not convince the Brits any differently. I was up against several other speakers who rattled off numerous dates, events, and consequences of World War II and the Cold War. They were well versed in the politics of the day, and it was clear that I was less than qualified to be my country’s sole defending voice.
Cooler heads prevailed fifty years ago, under the leadership of John F. Kennedy, and nuclear war was averted. We can only hope that President Trump can offer the same leadership on a cross section of international issues that both serve America’s interests and defuse the violence taking place across the globe. Benjamin Franklin summed it up pretty well many years ago. “There never was a good war or a bad peace.”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9:00 am till 11:00 am Central Time on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.