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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A day after Donald Trump told the United Nations General Assembly and the world that he would act alone to “totally destroy” North Korea if threatened, Trump embarrassed himself and the American people in an attempt to diss socialism. You can read the full transcript here, but he said, ““the problem is not that socialism has been wrongly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented,” and he’s wrong on so many levels. He got one thing right during his speech, though.
Before Trump put his foot in his mouth, he rightly condemned the corrupt Venezuelan government accused of international drug trafficking and facilitating the funding of terrorism while also undermining Venezuelan democracy through the courts and a fraudulent election. That fraudulent election created a Constituent Assembly that has since served constituents nothing but beatings, arrests and military trials. The Constituent Assembly moved quickly, declaring itself the highest authority in the nation and forming a “truth commission” to silence dissidents of Maduro’s regime. It’s all technically legal now, too. According to the assembly’s newly drafted Communist constitution, Maduro can continue violating human rights of Venezuelans and makes it more difficult for the U.N. to take action in Venezuela.
Trump’s criticism brought a response from the Venezuelan government saying it would defend itself from America’s “racist government,” which is fair. But Maduro and his government officials are in no position to talk smack, even to Trump. Trump’s utter failure to condemn rallying white supremacy groups for violence that left three dead doesn’t even compare to Maduro’s rap sheet (yet). In fact, the entirety of Trump’s sexual assault allegations and alleged marital rape, beauty pageant scandals, racial housing discrimination, tenant intimidation, creating a fraudulent university and other corrupt business dealings, using donations meant for charities to resolve legal disputes, four bankruptcies, antitrust violations, casino rules violations, the hiring of illegal immigrants, and the “grab 'em by the pussy” interview fails to compete with the atrocities executed by Maduro.
In an interview published by Devex on Aug. 28, former minister counselor at the Venezuelan mission to the U.N., Isaias Medina, said more than 130 Venezuelan citizens have been murdered, and 15,000 have been injured in the last four months. More than 600 political prisoners are also awaiting military trials instead of trials by jury.
U.S. sanctions prohibiting the American purchase of Venezuelan bonds won’t help Maduro pay the nearly $100 billion debt facing his country, either. So Venezuelans are going to continue starving silently or starving loudly until they’re black-bagged and disappeared or join the mass refugee migration despite many countries tightening immigration policies. Let’s just hope Trump doesn’t add Venezuela to the list of countries on his travel ban.
Hell, if Trump is found to have colluded with Russia to interfere with the integrity of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, he still hasn’t been responsible for the deaths of over 100 of his own civilians. Civilians in other countries are an entirely different story, though. Civilian deaths from U.S. and Russian drone strikes in the Middle East have reached new highs under Trump.
Trump also reached a new high in the long jump he made to use Venezuela as an example of socialism’s “problem” just weeks after the new Communist constitution was drafted by an assembly formed from a fraudulent election recognized by no one in the world but the Venezuelan government. The socialism Trump was addressing is literally weeks old, while the crisis is almost a year old.
First of all, no system of government -- not even a dictatorship -- is designed to oppress. While THE people might not control the actions of their government, SOME people still control the government. Corrupt people use the government to oppress. Oppression is not the result of socialism or Communism, but the result of oppressive people with power.
If you consider socialism’s history of leaders, you can see why people should be condemned and not the system of governance. Lenin, who suppressed any opposition to Communist Party rule, set a pretty poor example for the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin took that bad example and rolled with it, imposing a deliberate famine in Ukraine. He killed 40 million people, second to only Mao Zedong’s 60 million victims in China. (Note that Noam Chomsky never believed the Soviet Union to be a socialist state, since factory councils were eliminated and wage labor and other capitalistic features were utilized.)
Adolf Hitler’s 30 million victims are third on the list of most brutal dictators, but contrary to the belief of some, Nazism is not a form of socialism. Despite the Nazi Party calling itself the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the use of the word “Socialist” was completely for marketing purposes. With Nazism being a far-right political ideology, the Nazis had to find a way to appeal to working Germans in order to gain power. Hitler did not endorse socialism nor practice it while in power.
It took a democratic election to break the chain of brutal Soviet dictators, but the only candidate on that ballot was Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev had already worked tirelessly as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party to boost the slumping economy through reforms like allowing privately owned businesses in the service, manufacturing and foreign trade industries.
More importantly, Gorbachev, who said he believed in the ideals of socialism, gave Soviets rights they’d never experienced under previous regimes. Neither socialism nor Communism require citizens to give up freedoms of speech, press, protest or religious practice, but previous dictators did require the sacrifice of personal liberties in the interest of preserving political power. Gorbachev’s reforms sowed the seeds of democracy, and when Eastern European countries wanted to give democracy a try, the Soviet Union didn’t get in the way. So a Socialist did the most to spread democracy across Europe while America continued to install false democracies that fail people, with Cuba being a perfect example.
Trump mentioned Cuba as another example of the “problem” with socialism. But Cuba’s problem was never and still isn’t socialism. Cuba’s problem was and still is the United States of America, and its response to the failure of the right-wing dictator it had backed to win over the Cuban people.
America’s man was Fulgencio Batista, who had more interest in winning over American mob legends Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano than winning over the Cuban people. He turned Havana into “Latin Las Vegas” and turned a profit of $300 million for himself during his tenure. While Batista was enjoying the benefits of legalized gambling so close to American money, Lansky was making a whole lot more turning Havana into an international drug trafficking port to accompany the sex trafficking that was already rampant.
Almost everything in Cuba was owned by Americans, so the U.S. did its part to increase revenues for those American business owners in Cuba. Cubans didn’t like that, but they certainly didn’t like the U.S. supplying Batista with weapons, who killed 20,000 Cubans in seven years, according to John F. Kennedy.
Logically, Cubans got fed up -- especially Castro -- who was imprisoned for a year after attempting to overthrow Batista’s police state in 1953. Batista stole an election in 1954, but by the end of 1955, there were no jobs for recent Cuban graduates. Since they weren’t working, they had a lot of free time to protest, but you can only protest so long before you’re desperate enough to rebel.
Batista stuffed the ballot box and lost the 1958 election required by Cuba’s constitution. When he asked U.S. ambassador Earl Smith if he could return to his home in Daytona, Smith recommended he seek asylum in Spain. They didn’t want him. On New Year’s Eve of 1958, Batista and his supporters allegedly took up to $700 million worth of art and cash and fled Cuba. Batista settled in Mexico after originally being denied asylum in the country.
This was hardly the first or last time America backed a dictator who backfired, but it was the first and last time America was worried enough about an attack to order an embargo against a country. The embargo has crippled Cuba even more so than the loss of American investment in Havana businesses. The Soviet Union floated Castro some money in exchange for Cuba’s sugar, and Castro committed to establishing a State-controlled economy -- the first in the Western Hemisphere. This was the closest Communism had ever been to America’s borders, so it got pretty scary there during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But had Kennedy not attempted to assassinate Castro in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis would not have occurred.
Let’s recap. America installed a corrupt dictator who would prioritize American business interests and his own pocketbook over the lives of the locals. America then armed the dictator with weapons for an army to crush any resistance to the production of American revenue, resulting in 20,000 Cuban deaths. America then denounced the dictator it installed; it then denounced the dictator who replaced him. The dictator installed a government that wasn’t agreeable to America. America responded by refusing to trade with Cuba. So the dictator is forced to find an ally who can help his country recover from the economic devastation of the rebellion and the massive amount of American money pulled out of the Cuban economy. America attempts to assassinate the new dictator and fails. The dictator asks his ally to place a few nukes on the island to deter future attempts on his life. The ally obliges, but America stops the delivery and negotiates with the ally to take the nukes back home.
The dictator ends up responsible for the deaths of anywhere from 35,000 to 141,000 people over 49 years. That rate is at most 20 more deaths than his predecessor’s average of 2,857 deaths per year, and at the least 2,143 fewer deaths than Batista annually. The median puts Castro’s death toll at 714 less than Batista’s annually. Despite the death of the dictator, the embargo remains in place. And almost every nation is against it.
Castro was far from perfect, but he had his people’s interests in mind while Batista had American business interest in mind. While Castro improved education and health services and promoted social values, he also imprisoned dissenters and allowed no political opposition. He reportedly killed over 3,600 Cuban dissenters by firing squad and took control of the press. Like Kim Jong-un, Castro lived lavishly while his people struggled to eat regularly. But Americans like to ignore their own dark history when condemning the actions of other nations.
Noam Chomsky acknowledges the human rights violations committed by Castro in his new collection of interviews, Optimism over Despair, but hopes Americans realize the hypocrisy of condemning Cuba for those violations. “[I]t might be recalled that by far the worst human rights violations in Cuba take place in this stolen territory, to which the United States has a much weaker claim than Russia does to Crimea, also taken by force.” That stolen territory is Guantanamo Bay, which Chomsky informs was “taken by ‘treaty’ at gunpoint in 1903 and not returned despite the requests of the government of Cuba” (61).
Americans quick to condemn Cuba should also know that Castro’s Cuba played a key role in the liberation of West and South Africa, receiving high praise from Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison. “During all my years in prison, Cuba was an inspiration and Fidel Castro a tower of strength…[Cuban victories] destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa...a turning point for the liberation of our continent--and of my people--from the scourge of apartheid...What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?” (62).
While President Barack Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised, he did attempt to rebuild the relationship with Cuba over a baseball game and actually eased U.S. sanctions and travel restrictions. Trump has since undone most of Obama’s Cuban policies, so the embargo being lifted would require Cuba to stop being Communist and stop associating with Communist powers, according to Proclamation 3447 signed by Kennedy in 1962.
The biggest obstacle America must overcome is its commitment to absolutism -- this assumption that questions have one, and just one, correct answer. This right or wrong, black or white, red state/blue state, Capitalist/Communist mentality permeates our politics and entertainment.
Think about it: some people are unwilling to compromise on abortion because they feel life begins at conception, and aborting that life would be murder. I respect your right to believe that, but not all conception is consensual. Would you be able or willing to raise a child you conceived while being raped? If so, I commend your dedication to both children and your beliefs. But what about crack babies? Let alone the possible birth defects, potential brain damage and hereditary drug addiction, who is going to raise that child if the parents don’t parent? Are you willing to pay more taxes to fund orphanages to raise these children? Would you open your home to a crack baby and raise her like your own? If you are, here’s information about serving as a foster parent and adoption. But all the taxes and all the orphanages and all the foster parents in the country can’t ensure those children are going to turn into contributing members of society. They are disadvantaged the moment they’re born and have a lot to overcome and limited resources.
As you can see, almost any question worth asking or problem worth solving raises more questions and multiple answers of varying degrees of correctness, which rarely results in consensus. But instead of embracing nuance, the typical American knows she’s right even when facts prove she’s wrong. And Americans know everything.
For instance, “Is there a god?” is a “yes” or “no” question with no correct answer agreeable to all. But you will get a “yes” or “no” answer more often than not. A more correct answer would be, “I can only tell you why I believe there is no god, just as you can only tell me why you believe there is.” Rarely is that the question asked, however. Most people ask, “Do you believe in God?” That is a “yes” or “no” question that does allow for a “yes” or “no” answer, neither of which are the best answer.
“I don’t know” is the best answer when you don’t know or can’t prove a “yes” or “no” response because it acknowledges your ignorance and allows for learning to take place. Answering “yes” or “no” to “Do you believe in God?” can only provide two results. Either your inquisitor finds your answer unsatisfactory and ends the conversation, or your inquisitor asks why you do or don’t believe in God. “I don’t know” forces discussion to continue, while “yes” or “no” could kill the conversation and any learning that could occur because of it. America is a “yes” or “no” country.
Acknowledging all we don’t know is also a better indication of intelligence than repeating everything we think we know. Socrates said something about being the wisest man alive because he knew one thing -- that he knew nothing -- and he’s arguably the greatest mind of all time. You want to know how Socrates learned so much? There’s another saying I last heard in high school physical education class I don’t think Americans hear often enough: “You can’t learn anything when your mouth is moving.” Well, Americans’ mouths are constantly moving, serving as a defense mechanism to prevent them from being forced to explain or defend their beliefs.
So the big questions have multiple answers varying in “truthiness,” to use Stephen Colbert’s term. The big question Trump attempted to answer in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly and the world last Tuesday was, “What’s the problem with socialism?” No one asked Trump this question, but with Bernie Sanders’s socialist, single-payer health care bill introduced in the U.S. Senate while Trump’s party fails to repeal and replace Obamacare yet again, Trump’s handlers felt it was a good time to diss socialism in front of a worldwide audience.
The first mistake was Trump’s speechwriter assuming there’s a problem with socialism despite the most socialist countries repeatedly atop the Cato Institute’s annual Human Freedom Index. In 2014, nine of the top 10 most socialist countries were rated in the top 17 when it comes to the overall freedom of their citizens. The United States dropped four spots from 2013 to 23rd overall -- and the Cato Institute doesn’t even consider health care quality, accessibility or affordability in its rankings. But the assumption there’s a problem with socialism is wrong because there are problems with socialism -- plural -- just as there are problems with capitalism.
There are a lot of negative things that can be said of socialism. You could say socialism limits individuality by stressing the importance of serving the State. You could say socialism doesn’t motivate people to work their hardest. You could even say socialism rewards those who don’t work at the expense of those who do. Trump could have uttered any of these and it would have been more correct than what he did utter.
Trump thought he was being clever and eloquent saying “the problem is not that socialism has been wrongly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.” He even paused expecting applause. It never came, and a few chuckles could be reportedly heard amongst the U.N. General Assembly, because everyone else was well aware of socialism’s benefits. Most countries implement socialist programs, including the United States, despite running capitalist economies.
But most Americans share Trump's opinion of socialism because the American government made sure of it through propaganda and the persecution of its own people for exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, whether it be in a church or at a Communist Party meeting. It might not be black bags and firing squads, but it is oppressing dissidents nonetheless.
Many Americans use the perceived failures of socialism's implementation as evidence to dismiss it like Trump did, but America never gave socialism a chance. This country did its best to stop the spread of socialism before it started out of fear that people would realize its benefits. America has waged a War on Socialism that continues to this day.
America's embargo of Cuba and bombing of countries attempting socialism, and its unwillingness to allow liberated countries to install anything but a form of "democracy" has created the worst type of enemies. People recover from bombings and wars, but they never forget a bully dictating the terms of their "freedom" when all they want is to try something they think would provide the best quality of living -- not only for themselves but for their neighbors.
As a Democratic Socialist, I can tell you socialism is far from perfect, which is why I’m a Democratic Socialist and not just a Socialist. If there was a correct answer to "how are people best governed," it certainly wouldn't be absolute. It would depend upon the people and the place and the time, but it would most definitely be both democratic and socialist -- which is possible -- because we see it work everyday. You’d find Socialists to be reasonable people if you didn’t tune us out at the utterance of “Socialist” (or Democrat for that matter). But believing socialism is evil because the government said so -- that’s unreasonable.
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