Political theorist Benjamin Barber

The distinguished Demos fellow and president of CivWorld and the Interdependence Movement recounts his whereabouts on 9/11 and explains why borders don’t matter anymore.

Benjamin Barber is a noted political theorist who consults regularly with institutions and leaders in the U.S. and Europe. He's a senior fellow at Demos and president-director of CivWorld at Demos, the international NGO that sponsors Interdependence Day and the Paradigm Project. His best-selling books include Jihad vs. McWorld and Consumed. Barber also co-wrote the prize-winning CBS/PBS series, The Struggle for Democracy. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard and was a founding editor of the distinguished international journal, Political Theory.


Tavis: Ben Barber is a senior fellow at Demos who 10 years ago founded the international forum in response to 9/11 called Interdependence Day. I am once again proud to say that this year I’ll be taking part in the year’s conference, which has, of course, special meaning on this 10th anniversary of the attacks. Ben Barber joins us tonight from New York. Dr. Barber, as always, good to have you on this program, sir.

Dr. Benjamin Barber: Thank you so much, Tavis, good evening.

Tavis: I want to get to Interdependence Day here in just a few moments, but let me start by asking, because I think this is the one thing that for all of our lives we will recall – where was Ben Barber 10 years ago when these attacks were taking place?

Barber: My family was in New York. I was in Maryland teaching at the University of Maryland, and I thought when I saw on television the attacks I would not get home. But I managed to actually climb aboard a troop train going from Washington to New York because they sealed off New York. I got back to New York around 6:00 p.m. and joined my family in the heavy smoke of those attacks that evening. So I was there the evening of that horrendous day 10 years ago.

Tavis: As one New Yorker, what are your thoughts about these attacks 10 years later?

Barber: Well, it’s a very special weekend and for those who lost loved ones, for the country, it was a horrendous attack on the United States and what we believe in and what we stand for. But what I think most about, Tavis, when I think about 9/11, is that we haven’t altogether seized on the opportunity it gave us, because on the one hand it was a dreadful and terrible attack on the United States and what we believe, but at the same time it was a signal that we were living in a new world – a world of interdependence, a world in which people could attack the United States not from the outside, but from the inside.

Not bringing weapons across borders, but seizing airplanes and turning them into weapons. It was a sign that the United States, the most powerful country in the world, could watch the cathedral of capitalism at the Trade Center and the heart of its defense at the Pentagon be struck internally, not really across borders, so that borders don’t matter anymore.

The real lesson of 9/11 that I think we have still to learn is that this is a world of interdependence, in which all of the challenges of environment and climate change, of jobs, the president’s talking about jobs tonight, of immigration, of disease, of war and terrorism, are cross-border problems that cannot be met one nation at a time.

Tavis: So out of the horrendous and horrific attacks of 9/11, as you referenced earlier, you started this international forum called Interdependence. As I said earlier, I get a chance to participate in it every year. Every year it travels to a different country around the world. This year for obviously reasons Interdependence Day will be in New York City.

But tell the audience more about the organization and the work that you do every year around this annual conference.

Barber: Well, September 11th is a kind of very special and almost holy day in which we look back at those who lost their lives and Americans who have sacrificed and victims of terrorism and oppression all through the world.

We wanted to make the day after 9/11, September 12th, a day to look forward, to think about the future. How do we respond to terrorism? How do we respond to war? How do we respond to weapons of mass destruction and how do we respond to poverty, to neocolonialism, to predatory markets? Can we create a world in which there is an alternative to terrorism other than a war on terrorism?

So September 12th became in Philadelphia the first year, in 2003, then in Rome, in Paris, in Casablanca, in Mexico City, in Brussels, in Istanbul, last year Berlin and this year New York, became a day to look at the future.

To ask ourselves this vital question: If all of the forces and challenges that we face are cross-border challenges, challenges of a brute interdependence, how do we continue to respond to those challenges with 18th century institutions rooted in sovereignty, nationality and independence?

Independence used to be the ticket for liberty. Get your independence, you get security and justice and liberty for all. But today, security and freedom, whether it’s in the Arab Spring, whether it’s in Iraq or whether it’s right here in the United States, means working cooperatively and interdependently with others.

September 12th was the day once a year, and then a movement to all year long, where we try to focus on the challenges of creating interdependent civic and cultural and political institutions as cooperative and cross-borders as all of the problems that we face.

Tavis: Since you mentioned the Arab Spring, how does what’s happening in the Middle East, which I know you are acutely aware of, and for that matter I know your work inside of Libya in years past, how does what is or has happened in that region of the world challenge this notion of interdependence?

Barber: Well, it’s my belief, Tavis, that part of the problem in getting from the remarkable and inspiring Arab Spring to a real Arab Summer without first going to winter, was what it kind of looks like could happen in some of these countries, is that these countries have to work together. You will not get liberty and justice in Egypt alone, in Syria alone, in Bahrain or Yemen or Libya or Tunisia alone.

They actually need to be working with each other across borders. A cooperative Arab Spring that is truly a North African and Middle Eastern Arab Spring will have a lot better chance of succeeding than trying to do it in the special context of Egypt or Tunisia or Libya.

In Libya there’s going to be a tremendous challenge following the disappearance of the Qadhafis, who are holding together all of the anti-Qadhafi Libyans. A real challenge for them to unique across their 140 tribes to create a genuine Arab democratic summer, and they’ll do that much better if they work with the Tunisians, if they work with the Egyptians, if they work with the Lebanese, if they work with the folks in Bahrain.

So even there, interdependence is part of how real democracy is likely to emerge in the countries of the Arab Spring.

Tavis: Before I lose you in about three minutes, a couple of things you raised earlier I want to come back to right quick. It is impossible, of course, to have this conversation tonight and not ask a quick question, as you referenced earlier, about the president’s jobs speech just heard not long ago around this country and indeed around the world.

It was fascinating for me to go back through my research to look at the last time you were on this program about a year ago, and you and I were talking then about the fact that the president had put healthcare reform behind him, by whatever definition one wants to use. He basically won, as it were, on the healthcare reform. He got something passed, let’s put it that way.

You were saying to me a year ago, Ben Barber, on this program, “Now the president can turn his attention to jobs.” If I had a dime for every time this president has said, “And now, and now, and now I will turn my attention to jobs.”

It struck me, looking at the transcript of your last appearance here, that we were in the same position a year ago. Now, of course, he has given a major speech on jobs. What say Ben Barber about whether or not we’re finally going to get serious conversation about jobs in America, Mr. Barber?

Barber: Well, let me go on the record again. (Laughter) Now we can talk about jobs, and perhaps now, with the president’s leadership, we will talk about jobs. But even here, Tavis, one of the ironies is we are talking about jobs in America, but you can’t talk about jobs in America without talking about jobs in Mexico, or the lack of jobs in Mexico. Jobs in Guatemala, jobs in the Sahara, jobs in Egypt.

There are 20 million young people with educations who are unemployed in Egypt. Those jobs count. It’s very hard – I know in parochial America, with our media focused on America, it’s hard to do that, and the president has a real challenge.

But we have to put jobs also in the context of the world market, of the global immigration market. People talk about illegal immigration. By the laws of the land, people who come looking for jobs in America are illegal. By the laws of economics, they are following the logic and laws of economics when they leave Guatemala and go to Mexico, leave Mexico and come to the U.S., leave Africa and go to Spain and Europe looking for jobs.

So we need that context, but I do hope the president’s speech tonight will inaugurate not just more talk about jobs but action about jobs as well. That has to be at the center of any interdependence agenda.

Tavis: Finally here I’m anxious to get out of the studio in a little bit tomorrow and head to New York, so I will see you this weekend, of course, for all the Interdependence Day activities. Are there any events as I head to New York – and I’ve seen the rundown this year. You have a stellar list of speakers and participants and plenaries and panels and discussions and the like, and performances, for that matter. Anything open to the public this year in New York City this weekend?

Barber: We are open. Sunday we will be at Lincoln Center Library at 111 Amsterdam Avenue starting at 11:00 right through to 6:00, and Monday all day long at Three-Legged Dog Arts and Technology Center down at 80 Greenwich Avenue. On Sunday with Tavis and our good friend Cornel West will also be Howard Dean, Carol Gilligan, Khalil Gibran Muhammed, the grandson of Elijah Muhammad, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Josh Fox, the man who made that wonderful film, “Gasland.”

Then on Monday at 5:30 down at Rector Street station at 80 Greenwich Avenue we will have a young filmmaker, Tiffany Shlain, who’s won our first Interdependence film award. We will have Bill McKibben checking in, we’ll have the president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, is giving a keynote. Then after that in the evening we’re going to have a hip-hop concert with artists from England and the United States.

So it’s an extraordinary thing. If you go to InterdependenceMovement.org, or you can link to it from my own website, BenjaminBarber.org, you can make reservations. We are open to the public, but there’s limited seating. It’s going to be an exciting program. Tavis is going to be headlining with us there.

Tavis: Stop, stop, stop. (Laughter)

Barber: I have to say that.

Tavis: I wanted to ask very quickly, because again, I know we travel around the world with this conference every year and people are always anxious to get in, but this year, because it is the 10th anniversary, sadly, of 9/11, we will be in New York City for this conference and would love to see you there as we commemorate and celebrate Interdependence Day this year in New York City.

Ben Barber of Demos, distinguished professor at University of Maryland for years, the founder of this wonderful work. Ben, good to have you on. I’ll see you in a matter of days in New York City.

Barber: Thank you. See you this weekend, Tavis. Wonderful, bye-bye.

Tavis: Thank you, sir.

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Last modified: September 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm