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Posted on Nov 3, 2011
Peter Scheer: You know, that issue of the young people has always bothered me, because you had this huge movement across the country. Granted, it was organized around some really vague ideals, but it was a huge movement of people, more unprecedented political involvement among young people who have traditionally been written off as a political force who really slaved away for Obama, working for free, devoting their time, traveling around the country. And came out in droves to vote for him; changed the politics of the country, and then almost immediately, must be the most cynical and disillusioned group of people in America, I would think, given the disappointment.
Tariq Ali: I agree with you. I was in the United States three times that year, election year, and witnessed for myself the enthusiasm. And often when I was speaking on campuses, I saw the enthusiasm for myself, and I also bit my lip; I didn’t want to say anything to disillusion them, you know, because it’s awful when someone older and from another generation tells them hey, you know, don’t believe a word of this. People have to learn from their own experiences, and they have done, and they’re very angry. And I think that is one reason for the occupation movement; that even though they’re sort of reluctant to say what their demands are, there’s no doubt that one reason they’re out is because they’re disillusioned with the Obama government. Otherwise they wouldn’t be protesting like this. So one result has been independent organization, discussions taking place nonstop, all over the country. I was in Oakland last week and talked to many of the occupiers and spoke to them, actually, in Oakland. And the mood is quite militant; it’s not a mood of the majority, but I think a majority of the country is very skeptical now about politics. I mean, a number of opinion polls have shown that. Not just students, but working people and the unemployed.
Peter Scheer: You know, you can compare these movements, like the Occupy Oakland or New York or Boston to Los Angeles, where they have a mostly sympathetic local government where they’re camped out. And the difference maybe in energy and attitude and focus. I mean, maybe you need something to react against, as supporters of Obama were in 2008, reacting against the years of Bush rule. I want to ask you about—you have this really great Malcolm X quote at the top of your book, and he said in 1964: “It isn’t the president who can help or hurt, it’s the system. And this system is not only ruling America; it is ruling the world.”
Tariq Ali: Well, I think Malcolm was absolutely right. And you know, on the one occasion that we met and talked he repeated all this to me. And he also knew the power of the system. Because at the end of this sort of conversation we had, I said, “Malcolm, great to meet you, and I hope we meet up again soon.” And he said, “I don’t think we will.” And I said, “What do you mean you don’t think we will? What is this?” And he said, “Oh, I think they’re going to kill me.” I said, “Who is going to kill you?” He said, “the nation, the FBI, both together; the system doesn’t like me. Black politicians, especially, when we begin to talk about blacks and whites uniting to fight the system, that’s what they hate the most; it’s fine if we stay in the ghettos.” And within a few months he was dead. I have never forgotten that conversation. And of course he is right.
On the other hand, even within the system, certain presidents, if they wish to, can bring about reforms. You know, it has happened, though it has to be pointed out that these reforms have never come without movements from below. The New Deal came when there were factory occupations, you know, Flint occupied; trade unions were being formed; there was a sense of radicalism in the air after the ’29 crisis. And Roosevelt used all this to push through reforms, and also of course at that time the Soviet Union was seen as a possible alternative to capitalism, and that too scared the governments of the day into instituting reforms lest the dreaded vulturism spread to their countries. So all of these things did it, and then the Johnson reforms, the Great Society reforms, were a very direct outcome of a huge civil rights movement that had developed. And the fact that GIs returning home from the Vietnam War, black GIs, were participating as snipers in the big revolts that hit every city with large black populations, and that’s what pushed that through, because they couldn’t fight a war abroad and at home at the same time. And so they did push things through, and whether Obama would, if the movement were really to increase in size, is an open question, because I think he is a deeply conservative politician. I mean, the account in my book of him operating in the Illinois State Assembly shows the future Obama much, much more clearly than the vacuous speeches and the slogans of the campaign.
Peter Scheer: How do you see this movement affecting the president? Certainly it’s adjusted his speeches, his style a little bit. But do you see that having a—
Tariq Ali: I think that, basically, they would like to co-opt the movement and use it to get—you know, sort of to show, “look, we have our own version of the tea party.” This is what he said on one occasion. But I don’t think it’s going to work like that. I think the fact is that the movement is largely, if you like, a movement which is proclaiming a moral and ethical campaign against the excesses of Wall Street, the bankers and the capitalist system. So the solution to their problems lie in deep structural reforms and changes at the top of American society. And even though they don’t demand it, that is the logic of what they say. They are attacking the system as it exists, and there is no way Obama is going to do that. But he can ignore the movement unless it increases in size, and you know, more or less says that “we’re not going to vote for any of these politicians.” Were it to do that, and increase in size, then I think he would feel the pinch. What he’d do is an open question, because you know, he’s very confident now, because the Republican candidates are utterly useless … he thinks he’s going to win anyway.
Peter Scheer: Other than the economy, the area where Obama seems to be most a continuation of his predecessors, and maybe even taking it further, is foreign policy. You yourself are from Pakistan; that’s a country where the president is waging a kind of casual war without declaring war, just flying in and bombing people. The justification for this, as you say in your book, is that it’s—and this is a legal reasoning—that it’s for the national security of the United States that we can fly drones anywhere and bomb anyone. Isn’t that just license to do whatever we want in the world?
Tariq Ali: It is. And the United States is the only country that has this license, and uses it at will. Most of Europe follows suit. I mean, you know, because in my opinion, in the Western world at any rate, the only country with real sovereignty is the imperial state—in this case, the United States. And they do what they want to get away with it, and they use the institutions available, so if the Security Council has passed a vote, they’ll use that. They’ll use NATO; if there are divisions in NATO they go themselves unilaterally. That’s been the way for some time. And there’s nothing new here. The problem now is that we live in a unipolar world; there’s no set of countries which, at least nominally, are opposed to all of this. So the U.S. now feels it can genuinely do whatever it wants, except in the Far East, [although] it’s got Japan and South Korea. The Chinese can’t be manipulated that easily; I mean, they don’t intervene in world politics; at the moment, they’re only interested in the economy. So the U.S. has essentially—you know, can do what they like. I mean, the fact that Obama is angry with UNESCO for recognizing the Palestinians as an entity—I mean, UNESCO’s decision is purely symbolic; it changes nothing, it just accepts that the Palestinians are an entity, and we can’t deny their existence. And for that, Obama has ordered that U.S. funding of UNESCO is immediately withdrawn.
Peter Scheer: Isn’t that, in and of itself, an indication that American influence has waned? That you can have this, that they have to negotiate behind the scenes in this protracted battle to get Palestinian statehood recognized, and the U.N. has gone a lot—you know, it’s not like they just pointed a finger and said “no,” right? They’ve been negotiating heavily, how are we going to sort out this problem, and you have a lot of countries willfully ignoring U.S. influence, including our allies in Europe.
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