Political theorist Benjamin Barber

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Political theorist and president-director of CivWorld at Demos weighs in on financial regulation, bipartisanship and the role of diplomacy.

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: Always pleased to welcome Dr. Benjamin Barber to this program. The renowned political theorist and bestselling author is a senior fellow at Demos, where he presides over the annual Interdependence Day conference.
This year’s event will be held in Berlin in September. Ben Barber, as always, good to have you on the program.
Dr. Benjamin Barber: So nice to be with you again, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to have you here on the West Coast, of all places.
Barber: It’s great.
Tavis: There are so many things I want to talk about with you in the time that we have tonight. Let me start with this focus, relatively new focus on jobs. So the president spends the first year working on the healthcare bill. In retrospect, right decision, to spend that much energy and effort on – he finally got it through.
Barber: Well, he had to spend the time because he had to do it. I didn’t think he’d think it was gonna take him this long, but having started he couldn’t stop, and unfortunately that became the job and it took away a lot of other jobs from people who needed them.
But he did it, and I think it was a real – his big problem from the beginning has been two agendas: a civility agenda – bring the country together, consensus, work with the other party, get away from the radical bipartisanship – and at the same time put through a progressive agenda.
Unfortunately, those two clash because as he tries to be civil he finds the other side won’t work with him, stands in the way, and it would have been easier – he could have done this six months ago. He could have just gone in and said, “We’re doing it, one party. We’ll do it, we don’t need the other.”
But he really made an effort to make this a bipartisan effort and it took him a year, in effect, to demonstrate to himself and the country that that didn’t work and he had to do it on his own with his own party, and that’s what he did in the end. But it took a long time.
Tavis: Was it worth the time to let us see that the strategy of trying to work with the other side is a strategy they don’t want to engage? Is that wise, long-term?
Barber: I think he had to do that, but honestly, I don’t think he was so cynical as just to do it because he wanted to show that the other side wouldn’t do it. I think he had thought he had a chance. He was a different kind of politician, that’s how he ran. He was a different kind of man and he would actually work with the other side.
I think he had to learn that it didn’t work. I don’t think he was trying to prove it wouldn’t work up front, I think he had to learn it wouldn’t work. But it took longer than he thought and he paid a big price.
I’m glad he stayed with it, though, because though this bill is only half of what it should be, it’s just a beginning, it is the first time in 40 or 50 years when major social legislation has a footprint on the ground that says every American has to be insured, all children have to be insured, being a woman can’t be a preexisting condition.
It’s not the end, but it’s a vital starting place and he’s proved that he and the Democratic party can do it with or without the opposition.
Tavis: So now there is this new populism where we’re focusing on jobs, jobs, jobs. What ought he understand now, going into this fight, to try to get jobs for everyday Americans?
Barber: Now I think he knows that anything he does will be denied by the Party of No, and the Republicans have made it clear they want to be the Party of No. They’re running on running against him. They’re running on repeal. They want to repeal anything he does. It doesn’t really matter what it is he wants to do.
So he’s going to have to do jobs without them. Here’s why he’s made it tough for himself, though – he’s made it very hard to make arguments about public good, about public option, about raising taxes a little bit when we need to, even on the very rich, to pay for jobs programs, and that means when he comes to do a jobs program they’re going to be saying, “Where are you going to get the money?”
They’re already arguing that health’s going to cost the country a lot, even though objective sources have said it’ll actually save us money. They’ll do the same thing with jobs.
If he wants to do a real infrastructure jobs program, which is what I think he needs to do, he’s going to find that they’re saying bigger deficits, more taxes. So again, they’re going to scream tax and spend, tax and spend, tax and spend. They’ve been screaming that for 30 years. But on this one, he may give them some reason because the first stimulus bill, good as it was, has not yet done the job.
We need more stimulus, we need more government jobs. By the way, there was 160,000 more jobs this month and that’s very good, but a third of them were Census. That’s government jobs, and a lot of the job increase now is just with temporary Census workers.
By the way, a lot of the rest of those, it looks good and I’m glad to see a beginning, but those are temporary jobs, those are part-time jobs. We haven’t yet begun to get the full-time, well-paid pension jobs that we need to get the economy restored.
Tavis: I keep making the point, and you have obviously talked about this and done work on this, I keep making the point, though, that while everybody in this country is being, again, pushed and challenged by this economy, those employment numbers, unemployment numbers on last Friday indicate that Black folk, though, are still getting crushed disproportionately by this economy.
Barber: Tavis, unhappily, this has been the story for a very long time. When you parse any numbers, whether it’s numbers of deaths in combat, people who aren’t getting into college and being educated properly, people without jobs, it parses out so that people of color, African-Americans, Latinos, they’re the ones who bear the brunt.
Every time there’s inequality in this country, and there’s always inequality, it’s unequally spread so that again and again the people who can least afford it are the ones who are going to be in trouble, and there’s no question that joblessness, which is 8, 9, 10 percent among the cross-section of the country, when you go to say young African-Americans between 18 and 30, it goes up to 35 and 40 percent. When you go to young Latinos, same thing.
So without question this isn’t just a jobs problem and an economic problem, it remains a justice problem.
Tavis: I think the one thing – one of the few things, perhaps – that most Americans, at least if I read the polls and studies and surveys correctly, the one thing that many Americans agree on is that there has to be some financial regulation, some financial reform.
The question is, though, what’s that going to look like, and is Congress going to have the fortitude to take this issue on?
Barber: It’s going to be kind of like health, I think. I’ll give a prediction here – we’ll get it, but it won’t be enough. It won’t be very much. Here, I think, is a place where President Obama stands in his own way, because he is, more than a lot of Americans, more than a lot of progressives want to recognize, he’s a market guy.
He says, “I’m a market guy, I’m a fierce advocate of the market. I’m an ardent believer in the market.” He had Austan Goolsbee, a Chicago free market liberal running his economics during the campaign, way before he brought the team on of Tim Geithner and these guys who everyone says well, what’s he got them – he’s got them there because he believes in the market. Even now he says we’ve got to restore the market, not restore the balance between market and government.
My fear is that he won’t begin to do the kind of tough regulation that we need not just to save democracy and save our economy, but to save capitalism, because it’s capitalism that’s been placed in danger by the financial meltdown.
Tavis: Afghanistan – it seems as if Mr. Karzai has – well, I don’t want to qualify it. I’ll let you qualify this. (Laughter) What do you make of – I got my own thoughts, but it ain’t my conversation. What do you make of the recent comments of Mr. Karzai? He’s gotten a little aggressive of late, has he not?
Barber: Well, when your friends are your enemies, you probably don’t belong in the country, I’m going to start by saying. (Laughter) I watched last week that remarkable show, the special you did on Martin Luther King in Vietnam.
Tavis: Oh, thank you.
Barber: I hope everybody looks at it, because as you said, a guy who was kind of everybody’s champion, everybody’s hero, when he spoke with fervor and ardor about what he took to be an illegitimate war in Vietnam, everything changed. Even Black folk, more than half of the Black folk were against him and 70, 80 percent of the county were against him.
But he spoke the truth, and he said something really important there that was kind of misunderstood, but I want to bring it up with Afghanistan. He said despite ourselves, we are perhaps the country that perpetrates more violence in the world than anyone else.
Now that got him in a lot of trouble and it made a lot of people mad, and I wish he had said it this way, because here’s what I want to say. I want to say that we, in the name of good intentions and on the way to trying to get rid of evil in the world, use an awful lot of violence, and our firepower gets in our way because we end up killing a lot of people we’re trying to support. Not on purpose, but it works that way.
It’s like an elephant who goes into a chicken house where there’s a fox loose, and he thrashes around to kill the fox, and he may even get the fox in the end, but half the chickens are dead when he’s done. You can’t have an elephant there.
Our firepower is difficult, but there’s also a special problem in Afghanistan. It’s a tribal state. It’s been invaded over and over again, all the way back to Genghis Khan who a thousand years ago tried and failed. Nineteenth, early 20th century, the British went in; tried, failed. We know the Russians went in and didn’t just fail but it brought down the Russian empire, it brought down the Soviet empire.
Now we go in thinking we will do what others couldn’t do. The fact is we will be seen as every other liberator has been seen – as another occupier. If we didn’t believe it before, surely when the president of the country, who is our ally and who speaks perfect English and comes regularly to this country and speaks at the Foreign Relations Council – I heard him there just last year – comes and says, “You are more like an occupier than a liberator,” and that’s our friend and that’s our ally, then we’ve got to know it’s futile.
You spoke, and our friend Dr. West talks always about the prophetic and the political, and there’s a strong argument, and Martin Luther King made the argument against Vietnam on the basis of moral prophecy. It’s a bad war, morally.
But this war in Afghanistan, we don’t even need the moral argument. It’s a bad war politically. We can’t win it. It won’t work. It’s futile. We’re squandering our forces.
Tavis: But the argument, Ben Barber, is that it’s not a war of choice, it’s a war of necessity. That’s the argument.
Barber: Yeah, but it’s a war of necessity because what they are saying is we’ve got to stop terrorism in its tracks where it begins. But the problem there is we are being seen as the occupier, not al Qaeda. I want us to get out so the same tribesmen that see us as the enemy turn around and see the Arabs and the Iranians and the Iraqis and the Kuwaitis who are coming in as terrorists, they become the enemy.
Because the fact is you cannot behead a hydra. A hydra is that multi-headed being. You can’t take the head off. We are creating more terrorists than we’re killing. Every time with a Predator missile we go in and kill one terrorist and eight innocent civilians, we create from that family 10 new terrorists who replace them.
So we’re not getting the job done. I understand – I am not a pacifist. Not even – King wasn’t even a pacifist on every occasion. We need to fight terrorism, but we don’t fight it by invading countries with heavy firepower, killing civilians, creating the sense of being an occupier, and giving the other side, the terrorists and al Qaeda, a rationale to recruit young people.
The best recruiters for terrorism in the world are Americans with their overwhelming firepower, because every time we kill a civilian somewhere in the Middle East or in Asia, we create 10 new terrorists. So that is not the way to do it.
From the beginning it’s been clear that the war on terrorism is an intelligence war, a police war, a war that you’ve got to fight with cooperation, working interdependently with your allies, not by coming in with overwhelming firepower that doesn’t get at the real problem.
Tavis: What do we make of the fact, then, to your point now about these drones, President Obama has increased the use of these drones over and above what the Bush administration is doing, specifically in Pakistan. If you’re right about the fact – and I think you are – that every time that drone misfires or goes off-target and kills one intended person but kills eight or 10 other unintended people, we create new terrorists.
That’s how this war and that’s how this terrorism thing keeps going on and on and on and on. But what do we make of the fact that where our policy is concerned we have increased the use of these drones? Big story on the front page of “The New York Times” about it yesterday.
Barber: Well, here’s why it’s so difficult to be president. I guess you and I are probably glad we’re not, because the choices –
Tavis: I’m glad I’m not, yeah.
Barber: – the choices you face are so stark. Because on the one hand, if he uses U.S. troops he’s going to be seen as an occupier of Pakistan, he’s going to put our troops at risk. You use Predators – Americans aren’t at risk, you can do it by stealth, you can do it without anyone knowing exactly what’s going on.
On the other hand, you use Predators, you’re coming in with anonymous firepower, it’s not always accurate, you don’t know who’s controlling the calls, the Pakistanis are actually trying to get control of the Predator strikes, and who knows whether they’ll be striking our enemies or their own political enemies.
There’s no easy choices, which is why I say you’ve got to be out of there and then again, the one thing I would say – I’m a realist, I’m a political realist – about terrorism, I would say to Pakistan, I would say to Afghanistan and other countries, we are not going to occupy. We don’t have any right to be here. It’s your country, you rule it. But if there are strikes against the United States that could be traced to this place, we will come back – briefly, swiftly, and ferociously with firepower, and take them out.
But we will not occupy your country, we will not stand there. It is your job, not ours, to prevent terrorism from developing. So you’ve got to have a preemptive capacity to come in if you are hit by them, but I don’t think what you’re doing works, and it’s not just a moral question, it is that, but in this case, unlike Vietnam, there’s powerful political reasons for us not to be there, to save the resources.
The final point about that that really bothers me is Americans talk taxes, taxes, taxes, healthcare, that costs, education, that costs, jobs, that costs – well, you know what costs far more than any of them? These wars in Asia that we’re not winning, that we’re squandering the lives of young Americans on and killing a lot of civilians as well.
Those cost billions and billions. Put that money – and this is what Martin said back in the ’60s about Vietnam – take the money out of these wars, put it back into America, get jobs for young African-Americans, get education for Latinos, create an infrastructure revolution where we fix our bridges and streets and we get alternative energy installations, and you can do that and still save money if you’re taking that money out of these hopeless and futile wars that cannot be won the way they’re being fought.
Tavis: I didn’t know when you came on the show today that we were going to engage in a conversation that in part focuses around or connects to the King documentary that aired on PBS last week. I’m glad you saw it, though.
Because you keep referencing it, let me dig a little deeper and ask a couple questions on the other side of that special, because as you can imagine, I’ve received all kinds of email, mostly from people thanking us for having done the piece.
But that documentary raises some provocative questions, as you have mentioned in this conversation, not the least of which is whether or not organizations like al Qaeda have made diplomacy useless – whether or not organizations like al Qaeda have made the notion of nonviolence altogether obsolete and useless.
The point I’m getting at here is the kind of enemy that we are dealing with today, we both agree that Martin was not an absolute pacifist, but is the kind of enemy, the very nature of who they are and how they operate, how they do their dirty deeds, does that very – the very style in which they operate make diplomacy, nonviolence, absolutely useless?
Barber: Well, let me say two things. Let me say first I don’t remember anyone negotiating successfully with Hitler. There are a lot of evil people in history and one thing that President Obama said at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said, there is evil in the world and I think we can all agree with that.
Tavis: That ain’t nothing new though, Ben.
Barber: That’s nothing new at all. But all I’m saying is that so there is evil in the world, but it’s not new and if King waited to find a civilized enemy, negotiable and diplomatic enough to sit down and say, “Okay, explain what I can do, and if you give me the right deal, I’ll stop lynching.” The Ku Klux Klan – “We’re going to stop lynching if we can make a deal.”
That doesn’t happen. So first of all, nonviolence itself does not depend on the civility of the other side. It sure helps, but it doesn’t depend on – it depends on you, not on who the enemy is. But more importantly, and this is what I wanna say, we are not talking here about a war in which we have to invoke moral grounds against a morally unjust but politically efficacious war.
This war is failing on its own terms. Violence isn’t working. It’s bad enough that sometimes violence does work, and we can shake our heads and say, “Well, but we got rid of Hussein,” or “We got rid of Hitler,” and so on. But in this case, hey, we’re not getting rid of al Qaeda, we’re not getting rid of the terrorists, we’re recruiting them, but moreover we’re making enemies of the very country that we pretend to be defending and turning into a democracy, such that its own president, who is supposed to be our guy, is saying, “You’re more like occupiers than liberators, and you ought to know that.”
So what I want to say here is that powerful as the lessons that Martin King teaches us are, we don’t actually need to reach into the prophetic and moral tradition to find good reasons not to support this war. That’s why I’m hoping that President Obama, who quite rightly accepts the distinction that Cornel West and you and Martin Luther King make between the prophetic tradition, the moral tradition and the political tradition, he says, “I’m a politician. I’m the president of the United States.”
He said very clearly, you quoted him last week, “I can’t always do the things and listen to those moral voices, because I’m president of the United States and I have the security of the American people in front of me in the way that moral voices do not.”
But it’s precisely as president of the United States, who cares deeply about the security of the American people, that I think President Obama is going to be able to conclude that this war isn’t working. It’s not protecting the American people. Once he reaches that conclusion, I hope and I trust that he will have the courage to reverse himself.
Tavis: But to your point now, how does he reach that conclusion when one – we have to be clear about this – this is not a campaign promise that he broke. This is a campaign promise.
Barber: That’s exactly right.
Tavis: This is a campaign promise kept. “I am going to escalate in Afghanistan.” He said that when he ran. If you voted for him, you knew it was coming. So he kept his campaign promise, number one. So how does he come to this conclusion that you want him to come to if he is intent on keeping that campaign pledge, number one, and number two, how does he do that when we keep getting told by him and his secretary of State that if and when that decision comes it will depend on “conditions on the ground.” What does that mean?
Barber: Well, he’s giving us a little bit of a clue. First of all, conditions on the ground include a president who is our ally telling us that we act more like an occupier. How much they’re going to put up with that – Secretary of State Clinton called, he kind of apologized. He said, “Well, that’s not really what I was saying.” He kind of winked.
He says that’s for domestic consumption, he gets a certain amount of strength inside of Afghanistan if he treats America as a very reluctant ally. But the fact is it’s going to be very hard for President Obama to maintain a political climate already that’s very divided about this war among his own base if the people in whose name Americans are dying, and we are expending all of our precious capital that we’re not using in the United States for the things we need it for.
If that keeps happening and in effect we’re slapped in the face by our ally, I think that may be itself a game-changer. You can’t make a war in a country where the people on whose behalf you’re struggling are saying, “Get out, we don’t want you here.” That’s a game-changer.
The other game-changer will be, I think, and we’re seeing it already, and this is something that brings us full circle back to where we started about this country, the terrorism that we face today I don’t think comes primarily from al Qaeda. We’ve actually – a lot of luck, knock on wood, we’ve had nine years where we haven’t had that kind of an external attack. We’ve had a couple of guys in airplanes and so on, but no real issues.
But we have had terrorism after terrorism – domestic terrorism. Violence and terrorism against government officials, threats against government officials, somebody flying a Piper Cub in to a building and killing an IRS guy in Texas, people threatening violence here. That too is terrorism. The latest Michigan militia guys they just arrested, threatening to kill local peace officers, officer of the law, to get at U.S. government.
That is to me a terrorist act. We better begin to face terrorism where it’s really at its worst right now, which is right here in the United States. I think that too is an argument that President Obama is going to see weighs in the balance.
Every choice we make is a choice of priority. Right now, our priority is stop al Qaeda in Kabul. I think we’ve got to stop the Tea Party crazies, not the regular Tea Party people but the crazies who are on the outside of the Tea Party and the militias. We’ve got to stop them at home.
Tavis: This conversation – and I’ve only got two and a half minutes left in it – I wish I could do this for hours – this conversation, though, is exhibit A. This is a quintessential example, you are, in this conversation, a quintessential example of how progressives are trying to do this dance with this president, who they supported when he ran. So how are progressives doing, learning to dance with this president?
Barber: We’re a little clumsy, but we’re learning. After all, we have to be not just progressives but realists, just the way –
Tavis: You can’t be all things to all people.
Barber: That’s right, and the president himself – we know we live in a country that is fairly conservative. A lot of people are right there in the center with the marketplace, and a lot of people are well to the right, and there’s some loonies way over on the right who are threatening violence and could become local and domestic terrorists.
The president is doing the same dance that we’re doing. We’re trying to dance with him; he’s trying to dance with the country the same way we’re trying to dance with him. He’s doing perhaps a little better job of dancing with the country than we are dancing with him, maybe, and I think we need to do that dance.
We have to push, we have to be tough, and I love what you do on this show because you’re a loving but tough critic and you push. But we know also that it is a remarkable achievement that the United States, divided as it is, racist in some corners as it still is, elected an African-American president who is a cool guy and who is careful and who is thoughtful and deliberate and who’s doing the work he’s doing, and that is an achievement I don’t want in any way to undermine.
So we have to push hard to make sure the progressive agenda is met at the same time that we acknowledge having this president is a great triumph, not just for him but for America.
Tavis: In the 30 seconds I have left, how is the planning for Interdependence Day in Berlin coming along this year?
Barber: Well, it’s coming along really well. As you know, on May 11th in New York Demos is celebrating its 10th anniversary and the Interdependence movement is being folded into the Demos project. You’re going to be honored – I shouldn’t say that, but you’re going to be honored at that May 11th Demos 10th anniversary meeting.
In Berlin, it looks like we are going to have the most extraordinary movement and meeting that we’ve had. Harry Belafonte is threatening to bring some European rappers to (laughter) Berlin to work with us. We have people coming – young people coming from around the globe. So it’s going to be very, very exciting, and we’re all looking forward to it.
Tavis: Always great when Ben Barber is on this coast, or for that matter on satellite; just look forward to talking to him and picking his brain about the world in which we live.
He is international bestselling author, founder of Interdependence Day, happening this year, as it does every year, in September, this year in Berlin. Doing some great work with Demos. Ben, good to have you on the program.
Barber: Thanks so much, Tavis.

Tavis: Glad to have you here.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm