The Ukraine War and the Madness of Militarism

Author and peace activist Norman Solomon talks about the double standards in US foreign policy that have smoothed the path for Russia’s inexcusable invasion of Ukraine. The role of the military-industrial-complex in the US is one of the main reasons we lack a single standard for the use of military force and human rights, says Solomon.

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Rob Johnson:

Welcome to Economics and Beyond. I’m Rob Johnson, President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. I’m here today with Norman Solomon who I discovered, part of the year, is my neighbor out in Northern California. I’m only out there a couple months a year. But he is an extraordinary author. He’s the co-founder of rootsaction.org, founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, and he’s written two books that I’m aware of. War Made Easy: How the Presidents and Pundits Keep Spending Us to Death, Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State. He writes a lot of fascinating articles I followed for a great deal of time over time, salon.com. They made a film of War Made Easy, which is available on YouTube. And without disclosing any details, he’s got another book on the horizon. So I think you can count on the fact that we’ll make another chapter after we finish this episode. But, Norman, thanks for joining me here today.

Norman Solomon:

Hey, thanks, Rob.

Rob Johnson:

This is a terrifying time and I was inspired to explore with you to try to understand what’s going on, how did we get here, and what do we do about it? So let’s start with, we have an audience of young scholars too and if there are things that you can impart as to why you’ve chosen the career trajectory you have, I think they would be curious about that as well. So let me start there. What got you into this realm of looking at national security and American political economy and so forth? What was the catalyst that inspired you to choose this path?

Norman Solomon:

Gradually as a teenager, I became aware of the Vietnam War. I was born in 1951 and grew up in the Washington DC suburbs where of course so many people were government workers in various roles and levels. And around about 1965, ‘66, as I entered high school, I of course began to think about and I would read the Washington Post on the kitchen table every morning and so forth. And I assumed that the people in charge knew what they were doing and were believable. And gradually, by 1967, I started to believe that we were not only being lied to, but I think even more viscerally that my own country was slaughtering people who just had been born and were living “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” And so that really was an early catalyst for me to think critically and also involve myself emotionally in what’s the role of my government.

And so as time went on and as I became more of a researcher, writer, activist, one aspect that really interested me, because I was living near a nuclear power plant in Oregon, about an hour drive up the Columbia River from Portland, it made more specific what is nuclear energy? Might there be a danger? What is that danger? Are the assurances we’re getting worthwhile, credible, and so forth? And at first I thought that nuclear weapons were a reality that were unchangeable like the stars in the sky. And so I focused on nuclear power. But after doing activist organizing and we were doing nonviolent civil disobedience at that Trojan nuclear power plant, which was the first time that there had been a Gandhian mass organizing to nonviolently blockade an operating nuclear power plant. This was in the late 1970s.

I began to read more about this plant up the river, so to speak, metaphorically. What’s up the river from nuclear power? And realized that the Hanford plant had been central to the nuclear preparation and the actual construction of the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. And so that connection, I began to see the way that the nuclear synapsis, so to speak, were connected and did some writing about the Hanford plant and did a lot of interviews and so forth. And began to have a sense of connecting. Of course the Vietnam War was over then, but connecting a sense in which a mass frenzy could become so ubiquitous that it would seem normal. Whether it was a war that would go on year after to year, during the Vietnam War, and was taken to be nothing but common sense to support. Whether it was the building and maintenance and deployment of ever more destructive nuclear weapons. All of that percolated through my mind, and some might say my spirit. Whatever words one might want to attach to it.

It came to be sort of concentric. I think it is for a lot of people. There’s a sort of macro of this is a country I live in, this is the only planet we have. And then personally, existentially, what are we here for? What am I here for? And the destructiveness of US foreign policy and the political economy based on war and destruction that, as it has for so many people, hit me very hard.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I’m very grateful that you chose to devote your energy to such a what you might call profoundly important challenge to the trajectories we’ve been on and the difficulties that we all are haunted by. It’s not very often that you find someone with your capability that stays that course. And I’m delighted to be able to talk with you now because it’s almost like… I’m just a little bit younger than you are, I was born in 1957. I kind of got a wake up call when Dr. Martin Luther King came to Detroit in 1968, 3 weeks to the day before he passed away and was murdered. But his speech he gave, The Other America, startled people and his speech before that, about one year before his death, Time to Break the Silence Beyond Vietnam, was a very profound influence on me. And I minored in creative writing and studied the writings of Martin Luther King as an undergraduate as I was taking courses in arms control and disarmament. And I remember the bullet of atomic scientists. That had the clock, the number of minutes till midnight, all these things were just were very central.

And so what I’m really enthusiastic about is it’s almost like something’s just dropped back on us that was a part of a haunted story in my childhood that I thought had dissipated. And I know at some level the stocks of weapons and other things haven’t been disassembled and retired. But we’re looking at this Russian war now. I read a column of yours, it was just about two weeks ago I guess? Russia’s War is an Inexcusable Crime, but the US is not a Credible Force for Peace. What’s going on right now and why are we here?

Norman Solomon:

Well, Rob, you used the word haunted, which I think is quite appropriate both generally in terms of our moments in history, living in this era, and when we are willing to, or able to, be cognizant of the threats that emanate from our own society to not only our own lives and our loved ones’, but the future generations. And also this specific moment, this shocking conflagration, in Ukraine that I don’t think almost anybody really anticipated. And one of the striking aspects I think has been that there’s very much an enemy of my enemy is my friend psychology that kicks in very easily. And so it works in a lot of different directions. Some of it is obvious. Maybe some of it is not at all. But we are encouraged to choose up sides between the forces that Martin Luther King Jr called the madness of militarism. And I think he was quite apt.

He, as you know, as somebody who became a scholar of King’s work, he didn’t use words lightly. There was nobody who chose his words more carefully or precisely. And when he spoke repeatedly in the last year of his life, about the madness of militarism, he was addressing not only the specifics of the Vietnam War and the slaughter that the US was engaged in Southeast Asia, but the political economy, the psychology, the interweave of how lives were lived and lives were taken, the livelihoods, so to speak, that were tied to the extermination of other people. And his commitment to challenging that interweave of what he called materialism, the deadly triplets as he called it, materialism, which I think is really a word for, in that context, of the grasping, the thrashing, the destructiveness of capitalism and racism and militarism. And here we are in 2022, and those dynamics have us by the throat.

And so when we look at the genesis and the reality now of the killing, as we speak, in Ukraine, it very much is a challenge to get beyond the either/or. Either we support one side or the other in terms of US foreign policy and what Russia has been doing in Ukraine. And one way that I came to see it is that hypocrisy doesn’t justify carnage. And a mistake among people on the left, I don’t think it’s dominant, but there’s certainly that strain that we can hear and see on the internet, there’s this mistaken belief that well, because the United States is hypocritical, therefore there’s some excuse for what the Russian government has been doing in Ukraine. There is no excuse for that. It is absolutely without any credible justification whatsoever.

And what part of our quest, I think, and Dr. King was a leader on this, and many others in many walks of life have strained and struggled and worked very hard to bring to light, is that we need single standards of human rights. We need single standards of how a society treats people in one’s own country and behaves internationally. And so underlying that, there’s a saying among blues musicians, you might feel like you’re getting lost, but you won’t if you know the blues. And I think of that because with all of the cross currents of ideology, nationalism, and so forth, and these conflicts that occur with propaganda, dueling propaganda, and even warfare, it’s easy to get lost. And I believe that there is a core that many people are striving to and often staying within, which is a single standard. And it’s a single standard human rights and in the war and peace context, it says, no, you don’t get to have your country invade another country because you want to get your way, your national government wants to work its will somewhere else.

And so whether it’s what Russia is doing in Ukraine or the United States did in Afghanistan and in Iraq, those are all invasions. And when we hear Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, condemn what Russia has been doing by declaring that it is absolutely unacceptable for a powerful nation to invade another, it’s like calling George Orwell. What’s going on here? Are we supposed to engage in double think to that extent that we forget? I think one of the rough definitions in the book 1984 of double think was you have a fact and you put it on the shelf and then when you need it for your particular double think, you pull off the shelf and use it and acknowledge it just so long as it is helpful. And then you put it back on the shelf. And so just to sort of sum up, I think that we have this challenge and this opportunity to say, not only do we believe in a single standard of international conduct, but we’re going to insist on it.

Rob Johnson:

I’m sitting here with all kinds of cross curtain grins, but with a name like Robert Johnson and the blues music, whether we’re at the crossroads or whether we got a hellhound on our trail, I don’t quite know, but I did spend a few years of my life running a blues label, which was called Rooster Blues records and did the Comeback of Ike Turner in the realm of blues and all that. So I can feel a lot of the energy that you were describing in that music. And I always cite the theologian James Cone, who wrote a book called The Spirituals and the Blues. And he said the spiritual is about when you know you’re in chains and you’re giving yourself strength through the afterlife, but the blues are a music that was spawned at a time when you’re allegedly free, but you’re not free. And he said, and what you’re doing is defying things in the here and now in code. And I just thought that was such a beautiful way of seeing how that music was spawned and the contrast with the spirituals he had come from.

But you’re seeing all of these, there’s a part of me that says, I remember reading stories that said, Bismark says that when a national leader can’t resolve their problems at home, the best strategy is to create a foreign enemy to unify everybody around that. And I’ve been curious, given the tumult that we’ve had in light of the pandemic and other concerns and the polarity and what I’ll call hate politics that we’ve seen on left and right, whether this ritual is what you might call feeding that external focus in ways that probably have some very, very detrimental side effects.

As Barry White, the musician, once had a song called Practice What You Preach. And you’re talking about Blinken talking about how atrocious what Russia is doing is, which it is. But are we going to practice what we preach or are we going to go back to the same kind of thing like we did in Iraq or Afghanistan? These are enormous moral dilemmas. And being the Institute for New Economic Thinking, I really would like to explore with you a little bit, what’s going on with what I’ll call the force field of market political economy that may be driving this process to a dangerous place? What’s going on with what they call the military industrial complex?

Norman Solomon:

Well, that force field is just so powerful, has been for really ever since World War II, and remain so arguably as much or more than ever. So when you have five huge mega corporations absorbing so much of the military budget, Boeing and Northrop Grumman and a few others, they cast such a large shadow. William Harton has done such good work publishing studies and so forth. The lobby, both for the ICBMS that not only we don’t need but make the world more dangerous and other, the airborne weaponry that is, the buzz word is aerospace industry, just tremendously lucrative aspects there. And I think it’s not rocket science, to use the cliche, to see that there were limited possibilities to garner enormous profits by saying we need to protect ourselves from people in car bombs with box cutters that ultimately, as the so-called War on Terror unfolded and reached some of its limits, such as there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It was the wrong light, according to what the systems prognosticated, but that cash cow was going to diminish in Afghanistan and Iraq and so forth.

But China and Russia were very important enemies. And it doesn’t mean that those are angelic countries, nations, governments. I believe that [inaudible 00:20:01] Stone had it right. All governments lie and nothing they say should be believed. It doesn’t mean governments lie all the time. It doesn’t mean they all lie to the same extremity or with the same results, but we can’t simply suspend our sense of disbelief, we can’t simply go on faith with anything. And in case of the military industrial complex, which after 9/11 expanded and we can just extend it out to military industrial intelligence complex, outside of the beltway and also Baltimore Washington International Airport. Just these huge growth industries immediately after 9/11 that have continued to this day, that whole nexus of militarism and surveillance and so-called intelligence.

We use these words sometimes we don’t think about them. We talk about now we’re hearing about the civilized world and civilization. There was the anecdote of the reporter asking Gandhi, “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?” And Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” We have so many ways that we’re encouraged to, we even use words, going back to oral like defense. It is just ubiquitous across the political spectrum. We talk about defense spending. In print it is lower case D. It’s preposterous. And that’s yet another benchmark of the psychological progress and achievement of the military industrial complex. To have us believe that now when President Biden puts forward, and this isn’t all of it, doesn’t include nuclear weapons, 813 billion dollars for the next fiscal year, that we just heard announced for the Biden budget, and that will probably be bumped up. And we’re told in the vernacular, that’s a defense budget. Well, that’s absurd. I would say very little of that is legitimate defense spending.

So that works at so many levels. And, Rob, we could really talk about it all day and not really exhaust the subject because the political economy, the profit making, the ways that almost every congressional district has some company that is involved in profiting from the contracting to the Pentagon, tremendous lobbying on Capitol Hill, tremendous contributions. You have people like Adam Smith, Chair of the house Armed Services Committee, who publicly flirted with the idea a couple of years ago, maybe we don’t need a triad of nuclear weapons, maybe we don’t need land-based missiles. And he was absolutely correct for that nanosecond. And as Daniel Ellsberg has documented in his book The Doomsday Machine, the existence of the land-based leg of the triad, the ICBMs, makes us less safe.

But very quickly, Adam Smith, who in the last cycle had received $400,000 from so-called defense industry contributors, he flipped right over and said we need this quarter of a trillion dollar investment in the GBSD, what they call the new Northrop Grumman now, initiative to build another generation of ICBMs. It’s so ingrained.

And Rob, when I think about, can we imagine the United States of America without a powerful military industrial complex? And at this point since 9/11 or October, 2001, nonstop war. And no matter what Biden said, and he did say last September at the UN, the United States for the first time in 20 years, Biden says we’re no longer at war. The United States is no longer at war. To use Biden’s, one of his favorite words, that’s malarkey, it’s just nonsense. When you look at the Cost of War project at Brown University, very clear documentation. The United States is engaged in the so-called war on terror operations in more than 80 countries as we speak. So this gets back to we’re almost being, one might say gaslighted. Who are you going to believe? What you’re told or what is actually occurring?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I had the good fortune a few years ago to meet a man who makes documentary films at the BBC, Adam Curtis. And he made a three part series called the Power of Nightmares. And I joked with him when we had dinner, I said there’s a thing in economics called Say’s Law, how supply creates its own demand. And I said that really applies to the military. And when I started my career, I spent a little time, six years in Washington, I worked on the United States Senate budget committee under the leadership of Pete Domenici. I noticed every time defense appropriations bills hit the floor, in the media were ominous declarations about the threat, stories about the enemies and so forth. In other words, promotion for the need to pass those bills. And I watched that process over and over again.

When I got to Adam’s movie years later, he essentially was saying the way in which they demonized the Soviet Union in order to foster, and this was kind of a Rumsfeld/Chaney skit that he focused on. He said when the Soviet Union stopped, they just transferred the same script to Saddam Hussein in order to keep the urge or the demand for the military procurements vital and alive. But I found all of this, which you might call very haunting. And a person like yourself seems to have found a way to see through it. I think a lot of people are terrified and they feel like they’re being protected. So they’ll take these signals as evidence of being protected by the government as opposed to being deceived so that the defense industry that you’ve referred to can prosper.

And this is a very, very potent thing. I’m sure you’ve done work comparing the size of the United States’ defense spending, as they call it, military spending with other countries. And it’s orders of like 15 and 20 times. So what are we defending against? Just all kinds of questions. When I look at our budget in OECD numbers, if you look at our government budget, the proportion that’s the military and the proportion that’s related to healthcare, primarily pharmaceuticals, is so large in comparison to any other country. You can see the what you might call self-fulfilling elements of lobbying and campaign contributions are a very big part of the architecture that we have to endure. And not, in many respects, building things like school systems or quality healthcare, or elder care that would improve the quality of life markedly. So this topic that you have ordered your life to is a first order piece of what we need to understand to get to a better place.

And Dr. King, I went to a conference at the Riverside Church. Andrew [inaudible 00:28:00] and [inaudible 00:28:02] and others were there on behalf of the Quincy Institute. I went last Saturday. It was a celebration of Dr. King’s Time to Break the Silence: Beyond Vietnam speech, which was delivered on April 4th of one year to the day before he was murdered. And it was fascinating listening to his daughter Bernice and other panelists talking about how he was attacked when he delivered that speech. And the man who wrote it with him, Vincent Harding, is someone I’ve met. He’s deceased now, but I spent a lot of time talking to his book, The Inconvenient Hero, about the last three years of Dr. King’s life. This man is being to buy his allies in the civil rights movement, because they think he’s abandoning that agenda. He’s being attacked in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and so forth. Dr. King was extremely courageous.

And when I had the opportunity to teach an economics course at the union theological seminary, I would always bring out a thing that he did with A Philip Randolph called a freedom budget for all Americans. It wasn’t done for his group albeit. African Americans were at the bottom of the economic ladder and quite abused. He was talking about what we need to do with that triad that you mentioned, militarism, racism, and materialism, what we need to do to create a budget that is for all Americans and just those exercises. I think while he was a theologian, he was a tremendous social scientist and diagnosed our maladies with such penetrating insight. And I guess the question I’m kind of pivoting towards with you is we see this, we see this unhealthy dynamic. If you were, I’m a doctor’s son, diagnosis, we can continue that, but what kind of remedies do you prescribe for the patient called the United States of America or for planet earth?

Norman Solomon:

I think of a phrase from the Beyond Vietnam speech that King gave where he said that a nation that year after year continues to spend more on the military side than on social uplift is approaching spiritual death. And it wasn’t too many years before that, it was still pretty much in that era. I can remember back when I was a teenager, when the 1964 Civil Rights Law was being debated in Congress and in the nation, we heard the line that you can’t legislate morality. And that is absolutely wrong. We do that all the time, for good and for ill. And I believe the structure of the economy has to be changed. There are so many people who would love to devote themselves to helping others in their community and on their planet. And the possibilities for a sense of a livelihood and a personal future, as well as a social future. Those possibilities are very short supply. So people go where there is a sense of security. And that goes at the level of a sense of a personal family livelihood and security, but it’s also psychological. What is viable?

And so I believe we’re trapped in this self-fulfilling mythology that perpetrates itself as reality that pragmatism is to keep things going the way they are and to invest in the politics of death. And yet that is what, another context, C. Wright Mills described as crack pot realism. This is not realism to go ahead as though the climate was not being destroyed by fossil fuel and other emissions that we have some human control over if we can get a grip. And that’s why I come back. I think the economics is just crucial and is part of the weave of what makes a society what it is. And people respond accordingly. We’re so human and animal, as the saying goes, that’s how we are.

Rob Johnson:

But we have this parable that the legitimacy of capitalism comes from being embedded in a democracy which governs it. And one of the critiques that I’ve often explored on this podcast is what I call the commodification of social design where the legislators, the regulators, the enforcement are all things that people can, what you might call, influence the likelihood that a politician stays in office with money. Plus or minus. They can attack you and they can… I watch commercial media, avoiding certain subjects because they’re advertisers. I watch universities yearning for enhanced endowments as public funding is cut off in a place like California for the state universities. And so they build laboratories and things as joint ventures, which may have some positive dimension.

But they also so seem to, what you might call, succumb to… I guess the way I put it is development departments don’t want rebel scholars talking outside of what’s comfortable for the power elite that fund the university. And so we have a very different political economy where entertainment, media, education, and campaign incentives have all been commodified and have all been subject to that force field of the power of money.

And as you’ve talked, just today, and in many of your writings, these refractory forces are taking us to a place that Dr. King referred to as on the way to spiritual death. I think this is a very, very different economy than the one which is romantically embedded in a democracy and governed by a democracy. When dollars matter more than votes, what’s the real currency of decision making for our social architecture and design?

Norman Solomon:

There’s common sense that would tell us that if you keep going in a certain direction, you will be getting closer. You’ll be getting there. And as you’re describing, Rob, I was thinking of a speech that a physicist, as I remember named Philip Morrison, who was part of the scientific research, as I remember, that led to the Manhattan Project and nuclear weapons. Gave the speech in believe it was 1948, said the researcher, the scientist, the physicist at the universities is seeing the flood of money from the Navy, from the military, from the then war and then so-called Defense Department. And the scientists generally know that this is wrong. Their capacities, their skills, their educated abilities are being funneled into military, into the war preparation, into the weapons research. This is in 1948.

And from that day to this, that dynamic, as you allude to, is so powerful in academia, in the private industry, in the so-called public private partnership. And now, very insidiously, in the last decade, more and more clear it’s happening in Silicon valley.

It because do no evil has become a myth. Workers at Google and elsewhere have been trying to say, “No, we don’t want to be an accessory to the war machinery.” But that machinery is very powerful to put it mildly. And I think we keep coming back to what can we, as individuals, as organizers, what can we do as people who really care? And I think, among other things, is to not be overtaken and suppressed and reconfigured by what is as though that’s the only possibility. Because there are real possibilities that the great activist, AJ Musty, when there were the calls to engage in atomic bomb drills in the 1950s, or when he went out to the no Nevada test site when bombs were being exploded there in the fifties, and he was asked, do you really think that what you’re doing will change the way the world is?

And his reply was, well, I don’t know about that, but if I don’t do this, the world will change me for the worst. It’s the acquiescence that is to be struggled against first internally, at the same time that this social structures, the economy, are absolutely crucial. And I think sometimes there’s, and maybe this is a new age danger, there’s a false dichotomy. You’ll hear people say, well, I just think the world will change when I change myself internally. And that’s so non-dialectical. It’s like, we are in the world and it’s not an either/or. There’s a constant interplay between what’s in our hearts and minds and what is going out in the macro in terms of our conditions that we live under as people in the society and the world. To choose one or the other is ridiculous. And so maybe a very, very vulgar Marxist might say, “Oh, it’s all about the way the economy’s structured.” And then very fashionable, I think in some circles is, “Oh, you have to really just change yourself and work on yourself.” I think both of those are inadequate, but have some grains of truth.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. They may be necessary, but not sufficient conditions. I have recently been inspired by some friends to read some of the works of the psychologist Carl Jung. That he wrote, it’s around volume 10 of his collected works, the title of that volume is Civilization in Transition. And this is where he goes from dealing with the shadow work and unconscious of the individual to what he calls the collective unconscious and the dynamics of how we can together get off course or with those improvements within the self contribute to the challenge and restore the course. But the shadow of the collective unconscious seems to be quite resilient and persistent. He was actually reflecting on the experience in Germany, in the thirties and forties that stirred him up. He saw things as much, what I’ll call the ugly, was much more resilient and powerful than he had imagined. And how we band together, how do we come out of that ditch, is very much a concern.

Norman Solomon:

The epigraph to a book that we’ve referred to today by Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine, is from Nietzsche. Where he says, “Madness and insanity is rare in individuals, but in groups and nations, it’s commonplace.” I think there’s a lot to that. And the group, whatever we want to call it, frenzy, hysteria, psychosis of militarism, we’ve seen it time and again. How do we explain that fairly reliable polls show most people in Russia are supporting Putin and the so-called military operation in Ukraine. Now it’s true that the facts are distorted and maybe probably many of them don’t have full information. But still there’s an enthusiasm that is tapped into, stoked, and exploited by leaders who lead their country and send their militaries into war.

And I’ve been looking at the polling, for instance, when the first President Bush sent US troops and the missiles into a War on Iraq and when the Iraqi troops were driven out of Kuwait. Well that was notoriously called a turkey shoot by one officer. The slaughter of retreating soldiers. And many civilians killed during the Gulf War. In six weeks in 1991, 100,000 Iraqis killed by the US and yet tremendous enthusiasm for Arnold [inaudible 00:42:34] and Colin Powell. And while he had not been terribly popular before then, Gallup registered the highest popularity rating in its history for president, 89% by early 1991 for George Herbert Walker Bush. And that is not a typical.

Also not atypical is that it tends to not last unless it’s a clear cut triumph for the US and unless the domestic economy doesn’t tank or go south. And as we know, if you were to look at a graph, it was a plunge for the first president Bush from 89% to about 45% within a year. And of course he lost for reelection. So it’s just to say that, it goes to your point I think, that there is whatever you want to call it, a very dark side in, whether we consider it to be a design flaw or human characteristic or an exploited and drummed up possibility in humanity, that we always have to be on guard against. And that certainly has to do with the risk of fascism in this country, in the United States of America.

In the third decade of the 21st century, the Republican party is a Neofascist organization and it thrives on whether we look at it that way or not. It thrives on militarism and authoritarian views and the look for a big daddy leader. And, speaking of another European philosopher, you might say, and psychologist, Wilhelm Reich wrote about that zeal for the big leader, the great leader who will solve everything for us. And there is no better description of that, in a way, or way to describe, than Donald Trump. Jason Stanley wrote this excellent book describing fascism, and when you read it, I think I have it here somewhere on my desk, let me grab it here. It’s quite [inaudible 00:44:58].

It’s “Why Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them” by Jason Stanley came out a few years ago. He describes characteristics of fascism. And you can just substitute Donald Trump’s name and the whole psychology behind it. And even though he talked against war, he also talked for it and said the US was too wimpy. And my fear as we talk here in the spring of 2022, is that the jacked up militarism that comes with the rhetoric of the Biden administration calling for regime change in Russia, what happened to a single standard? What happened to good for the goose is good for the Gander. Let’s be clear. If we’re going to say that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, then we also need to say that George W. Bush is a war criminal. And we also, if you really look at the facts, we have to look at the President who Biden was on the ticket with and Vice President for eight years, Barack Obama, you could make a very strong case was a war criminal. When you look at the escalations and the drone wars and so forth in especially Afghanistan, but also military actions in Iraq and so forth. Horrendous slaughters, even if they weren’t covered by US media.

What happened to if you invade country, then that is impermissible? If you just do it without cause, without justification, without any defense. So we’re in this sort of Orwellian zone that is [inaudible 00:46:46] to itself and US mass media largely in an irony free zone. And so the contradictions are almost taboo to talk about. Imagine, Rob, if you or I went to the New York Times and said we have an oped and we want to write about how the last few presidents have also been war criminals while also affirming that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. It’s just a no go. It’s just not within the realm of discourse. And yet we’re told that we have to spend more and more money, we have to send more billions of dollars worth of weapons to Eastern Europe, we have to deploy more troops near the Russian border.

This is insanity that we’re now facing where one leader of a country that has the status of a nuclear superpower is declaring that the leader of another country that is the leader of a nuclear super power, that that leader must be taken out of power, must be deposed. This is something where the unthinkable becomes thinkable. And that’s something that Stanley is writing about. In the social context he’s saying, or looking for, when is it fascism? They’re not goose stepping yet. They haven’t shut down the Congress yet. And the goal posts keep being moved. So what’s unthinkable one year becomes thinkable later on and the goal posts keep moving and we become gradually acclimated. And just to sort of go back, for a moment, to this question of US domestic politics, we need to wake ourselves up more and more because the very possibility of democracy is under threat from the Republican party. And that is just reality. And its name is Trump.

Rob Johnson:

Well, that January 6th episode was a symptom of the kind of temptations that Mr. Stanley writes about in his book. And what we have, what you might call the will to do about it in the aftermath. Investigation, legal prosecution, and so forth is what you might call seemingly inadequate. All I’m saying is it doesn’t seem to be set up to deter it from happening again. And I think these are very, very daunting prospects. And when I look at, economists talk about the opportunity cost of this or that. When we’re rebuilding and fortifying nuclear arsenals and weaponry and so forth, we’re not building the rungs in the ladder called knowledge intensive education. A whole lot of people, I grew up in the Midwest, used their hands and then automation and machine learning and globalization took away their jobs and they didn’t get what I’ll call transformational assistance of any scale.

And now they have children who they are in despair about the prospect for their children. And we’re going to go build more things in the military and not in the era of digitization and so forth. Prepare these young people for careers in the knowledge intensive service business. That looks to me like we’re going in the wrong direction. The old parables in economics, W. Arthur Lewis made very clear, the Nobel Laureate, about moving from the farm to the city and higher productivity, et cetera. Well now you don’t go from the farm to the city, you go from low margin services to high margin services through the education system. But the education system is not being fortified. And what does that portend for despair and acquiescence to authoritarianism in the future? When, out of helplessness, you want to protect your children and you feel abandoned by the current structures.

Norman Solomon:

I think so much of that is just hidden in plain sight. We rarely see or hear that discourse in the mass media. There’s the word neoliberalism, the sort of shorthand for where it’s gone. And arguably, and I think sensibly, we could say that the democratic party and I was a Bernie Sanders delegate in 2016 and 2020, I’ve participated in that process of the Democratic party, but I think it really needs to be said and emphasized and heeded that the neoliberal policies really reek of a kind of elitism and snobbery and condescension to working people and want to be working people who are underemployed or unemployed. And so what about that anger and rage of people, such as those you’re talking about who are not being provided with the real opportunities for gainful employment and education of the sort that will be suited for where the economy has been going?

So Trump can speak to them demagogically, but often very effectively. And yet we have the stroking the chin and scratching the head from places like the New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards. Like why are these people voting for Trump? Or maybe it’s because the elitist politicians who, such as Hillary Clinton getting six figures for one speech to Wall Street or others who are so enmeshed with those who are making huge profits from the status quo of corporate America, maybe they simply, and I think they are simply, not caring very much in their policies about people’s standard of livings and their sense of or lack of security for the future. For themselves, for their families, for their loved ones, for their friends. It’s all capsulized in that saying, maybe it’s too facile, but it’s very true. Are the policies geared to Main Street or Wall Street? And the answers have been overwhelmingly Wall Street.

Rob Johnson:

And I have seen, I often cite a book that the late Jane Jacobs wrote, her last book was called Dark Age Ahead. She was based in Toronto, but looking over the world system that was led by the United States. And her third chapter in that book is called Credentializing Versus Educating. Are schools creating inputs to production, or are they creating citizens? And citizens in a vibrant democracy become what you might call the force field or the compass for where we should go. But when people are afraid and fear are being left behind, they may become inputs to production in order to secure themselves. But therefore, which you might call, using Jung, constructing their own shadows around the dilemmas and the compromises they’ve had to make to honor their fear rather than honor what you might call their true spirit or the true self that they aspire to be.

And I think these things are very haunting. And when the school system doesn’t even contribute rungs in the ladder to that pathway, where do we go? And I know I’ve done a little bit of work in a study group with people around Pope Francis. They talk about how much of the world doesn’t go to college, but people are tempted, if education is not teaching us what I will call Econo-civics about the institutions of our society, civics when I was a kid taught you about government institutions. Well now these private institutions and how they work, a lot of people will drop out of high school because they don’t think the curriculum has any relevance to their life and they might as well go start earning a wage to help their family. How do you keep people in school long enough to become citizens so that a democracy can function?

I think all of these dilemmas are, how I say, interacting with the way we create our priorities within the government. And as we’ve talked about today, the military priorities, in the case of the United States, the pharmaceutical system and others, or the allowing of tax avoidance, which used to be called tax evasion, and then say we can’t afford it while everybody that’s super well off with great lawyers can keep their money offshore. I don’t know how you put the Republic back together again, restore faith, comradery, diminish the polarized hostility that comes from fear. And I’m always reminded of a book I read years ago by Gerald Jampolsky, a psychologist, Love is Letting Go of Fear. And I’m not talking about romantic love. It’s being part of a community with faith. I don’t know how we get back on track right now, but I think illumination, which you’ve done in your writing, is a key ingredient. Understanding the dilemmas and the trade offs we face is the first step, that’s the diagnostic step. You have been an activist. Is activism being unrelenting in working towards these changes the necessary condition of the next step?

Norman Solomon:

Part of the process, I think. And as you’re referring to not sufficient, but essential is our sense of our own reality right now. I think of a map. If the map is comporting with the terrain, then it’s helpful. If we’re using false maps, we’re just sort of screwed. We’re just going to keep getting lost or we can’t really even figure out where we want to go or how to go where we want to go. So necessary, but not sufficient is to have a fairly accurate map of our current circumstances and power relations in the society. And not the mythology that we’re largely fed, unfortunately, by mass media. But then if the terrain is mapped out fairly accurately, and not rigidly because things could change, then we have real possibilities because humans have achieved such greatness.

And I don’t mean enormous empires and wealth. I mean greatness of human spirit and achievement for taking care of each other and elevating ourselves as societies and as a species. I think of something that the historian Howard [inaudible 00:58:35] liked to say, who I think we miss very much, but Howard, year after year, would say that we don’t know what is possible, we may be very discouraged. But he would cite examples. And classic one is how would we ever have believed that in South Africa not only Apartheid would end, but there would be a sense of reconciliation and that Nelson Mandela, after all those years in prison, would be the president of the country. Of course the South African government, that was not Nirvana and it had a lot of corporatism infecting that government, but the point is that we can’t always know what is possible.

And sometimes when things seem very bleak, there’s an unexpected breakthrough. A metaphor that’s been used is the lily pad in the pond where there might just be one lily pad and then there’s another one, it seems to be isolated. But very quickly the whole pond can be filled with the lily pads. And movements are that way. And we have a lot of examples where people have achieved great things when it seemed almost impossible.

So one truism that I think we can be left with is we could work our whole lives, we could devote ourselves to creating necessary change, and we could fail. But one thing that’s for sure is that if we don’t dedicate ourselves to making those changes, then they won’t be made. And so in a way that’s the existential choice, passivity and capitulation to what in our hearts we know is wrong or finding ways to the best of our abilities, individually and collectively, to live and work for what we believe in.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I’m, how do I say, it’s my propensity to hear music. It’s like the lyrics are that spirit coming into me. I’ve often said that I don’t know about the Father and the Son, but the Holy Spirit I can believe in because I’ve listened to Aretha sing, John Coltrane’s horn, Marvin Gay’s social awareness in his lyrics, Bob Dylan’s lyrics, James Brown’s feet dancing. And so I get messages. And today, as I was listening to you, the song that’s perhaps been my anthem in the period since the onset of the pandemic was performed by Teddy Pendergrass when he was a member of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. And the song that reminds me of you goes like this, “Wake up, everybody. No more sleeping in bed. No more backward thinking. Time for thinking ahead. The world has changed so very much from what it used to be. And now there’s so much hatred, war, and poverty. Wake up, all the teachers, time to teach a new way. Maybe then they’ll listen to what you have to say. Because they’re the ones who are coming up and the world is in their hands. When you teach the children, teach them the very best you can.”

Norman, you are a great teacher to my young scholars. Through your example, through your insights. And that wake up call that you represent is a tremendous gift. And I sat in that church, Riverside Church, where Dr. King delivered that speech last Saturday. And when we finished, when we gone through the debate, when we’d gone through the reverence for Dr. King’s courage, and we explored what happened to him and everything else, a gentleman named Brian Courtney Wilson stood up and he sang a song that said, “Fear is no longer welcome.” And it was all about how fear had encroached and he had thought it was his friend, but now he realized that fear was no longer welcome in his heart. And what I experience in conversation with you and in listening to you is how you create a pathway for us to walk away, maybe run away, from our fear and embrace something constructive. Thank you for being here today and thank you for the work that you do.

Norman Solomon:

Thanks very much, Rob, and thanks for all you do.

Rob Johnson:

We’ve got more marches to do together in the coming years. And I look forward to our next chapter where your book, which I won’t even foreshadow today, but we can wait with baited breath for the next constellation of insights that you put before us. And we’ll fly your articles on Salon. I’ve seen you published in The Nation. I wanted to chase everybody back to War Made Easy on YouTube, which they can watch for free. But you’re waking us all up and those young people are going to benefit from it.

Norman Solomon:

Thanks again, Rob.

Rob Johnson:

Thank you. We’ll see you next time. And check out more from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at ineteconomics.org.

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