The bipartisan war party is once again giddy with excitement as Trump prepares to become “presidential” again. This week on Intercepted: U.N. inspectors have not even arrived on the ground in Syria to investigate the latest reported use of chemical weapons, but Trump has already threatened Syria, Russia, and Iran that they will pay a “big price” and “nothing is off the table.” Historian Andrew Bacevich and Jeremy make the case against escalating U.S. military action in Syria, even if Assad’s forces were behind the attack. The acclaimed novelist Arundhati Roy talks about her new novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” and offers insights on Kashmir, Narendra Modi, Trump, and more. Roy also dismantles some widely held beliefs about Mahatma Gandhi’s politics. Actor and writer Wallace Shawn (“My Dinner with Andre,” “The Princess Bride”) talks about the U.S. assassination program, imperial wars, and collective responsibility. He and Jeremy also discuss “Evening at the Talk House,” Shawn’s new audio drama premiering next week on Intercepted. And Jimmy the taxi driver gets into Trump’s head in the aftermath of the raid on the office of his personal lawyer Michael Cohen. It’s a sabotage.
President Donald J. Trump: So I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys, good man, total witch-hunt, I’ve been saying it for a long time.
Jimmy the Cab Driver (MTV): The president of the United States of America, you’re talking about a very powerful man, you know, especially with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, you know?
DJT: And I have this witch-hunt.
J: But these guys, just like their Camp David, and where they go play golf.
DJT: Attack on our country in a true sense. Attack on what we all stand for.
J: Ah, yeah, well excuse me pal, because behind you guys in black, I like, you know —
DJT: They’re not looking at the other side; they’re not looking at the Hillary Clintons.
J: Sneaking this way: ninja warriors!
DJT: This is a pure and simple witch-hunt. Thank you very much.
[“Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is Episode 52 of Intercepted.
Reporter: U.S. military action. Is it off the table?
DJT: Nothing’s off the table. Nothing’s off the table.
JS: The bipartisan war party is once again giddy with excitement. Just a year ago, they were celebrating as Donald Trump became “presidential” when he rained down $100 million worth of cruise missiles, 59 of them on a Syrian military installation. Now, they’re at it again, openly goading Trump. Daring him. Encouraging him to — well, they don’t say what exactly in Syria, but they want military action.
And the thing is, just last week Trump was reportedly talking about the U.S. getting out of Syria very soon. Just days later, it seems, that we may be on the brink of another significant escalation in the U.S. bombing of Syria. There may even be a substantial U.S. ground invasion at some point. This is a very serious moment. So what happened?
Well, on April 4th Russian television reported on comments that Vladimir Putin made during a recent visit to Turkey, where Putin said that Russia had intelligence suggesting that anti-Assad forces in Syria were planning to stage what he called provocations involving chemical weapons in Syria.
Vladimir Putin (translated): We have obtained undeniable evidence of planned provocation by the militants with the use of chemical agents.
JS: Soon after those statements by Vladimir Putin were broadcast, on April 6th, a senior Russian military official was quoted by the state news agency TASS, as saying that the Free Syrian Army was planning chemical attacks with the use of chlorine in areas under its control. That Russian official was quoted as saying “the militants plan to photograph and video the alleged effects of chemical weapons and show the clips to the public at large to blame government troops for civilian casualties, as well as to provide excuses for their own actions to disrupt the ceasefire.”
RT: Russia’s defense ministry says rebel groups have been armed with chemical weapons in Syria and are planning to stage false-flag attacks as a pretext for the U.S. to carry out airstrikes.
JS: On Saturday reports began emerging from the Damascus suburb of Douma that a chemical weapons attack had been unleashed on the civilian population. Horrifying images of children and women and men being rushed to the hospital or already dead were posted online, and they soon made their way to global television networks.
Holly Williams (CBS): Survivors struggling to breathe, especially children, and being hosed down as if to remove a substance from their skin. We cannot independently verify any of these videos or confirm whether a chemical attack took place. Survivors, though, reportedly smelled of chlorine, a chemical that can be deadly in enclosed spaces.
JS: Most of the news coverage focused on the civilians, and I believe that’s the right focus, but Douma was also a stronghold of an armed Islamist group that’s backed by Saudi Arabia and trying to overthrow Bashar al Assad. That group is known as Jaysh al Islam. In any case, the Trump Administration swiftly accused Bashar al Assad and the Syrian government of being responsible for the attack.
Newscaster: President Trump on Twitter called Syrian ruler Bashar al Assad an animal and called out Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran for backing him. Mr. Trump warned of a “big price to be paid.”
JS: Now, soon after this news broke Russia claimed that this attack was a realization of the warnings that its military general and Vladimir Putin had issued earlier. The Syrian government denied that it had carried out the chemical attack. Witnesses on the ground said it was Syrian government forces. Russia’s foreign ministry labeled the attack “fake news.” Said it was a false flag, intended to “justify possible military strikes from the outside.” Here’s Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov:
Sergey Lavrov (translated): I’m sure you saw this video where people allegedly targetted by the chemical weapons, while having water poured over them by people with no chemical protection themselves. This looks like the videos from a year ago, from the white helmets, who already proved to be untrustworthy.
JS: Now I take all of these Russian statements with, not a grain of salt, with like a massive mountain of salt. It’s the Russian government, and it lies, and it engages in constant propaganda. But that is Russia’s official position.
The United Nations Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said on Tuesday that it intends to send a team to Syria to investigate this latest incident, and it noted, in a press release, that this preparation “coincided with a request from the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian Federation to investigate the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma.” The U.N. said a team is preparing to deploy to Syria shortly.
Now it’s important to note here that in 2016, a U.N. investigative team concluded that Syrian government forces had used chlorine as a chemical weapon in three cases. The U.N. also concluded that the Islamic State fighters used sulfur mustard. In 2017, that same U.N. body placed the blame for the Khan Shaykhun attack on Assad’s forces.
Newscaster: More than 80 civilians died, many of them children. The report says evidence gathered from eyewitnesses, satellite imagery, and mobile phone footage indicate the attack was carried out by Syrian government aircraft.
JS: I don’t know who carried out this most recent attack in Douma. I’ve not seen clear forensic evidence or an independent assessment of what was used and by whom. That’s what the U.N. investigation is supposed to be about. Could this have been Assad’s forces? Yeah. That would be consistent with what the U.N. has concluded in some previous cases. Could Russia have been running a psychological operation when they predicted an attack and then it happens the very next day? Sure. Does Russia have a vested interest in Assad remaining in power? Absolutely.
At the same time, could Trump and his administration be wrong or straight-up lying about Assad’s forces conducting this attack? Sure. Could the CIA and other intel agencies feed Trump dubious intel posing as definitive conclusions? Absolutely. Does Trump desperately want the subject in Washington D.C. to change? Uh, no question.
Reporter: Do you have any response to Stormy Daniels!
JS: I have to admit here that it is very hard to think of a logical reason for Bashar al-Assad to conduct such a chemical attack right now. I’ve looked at various theories and none of them really make sense. At the same time, war is unpredictable and so are dictators and despots. None of this means that Assad’s forces didn’t do this — just that it would seem very bad strategy for Assad to have done this unless the point was to get Trump to escalate the bombing. And there are some theories about Russia wanting to pull the U.S. deeper into a Syria quagmire, but all of this gets into eighth-dimensional chess territory and straight-up hypothesizing or guessing. So, what I want to put forward here is this: Even if Assad or his forces have used chemical weapons, I’m totally against U.S. military action in Syria. This war has been a horrifying series of war crime, after a war crime, after a war crime: by Assad and his forces, by Russia, by the United States, and by some of the so-called rebel groups, including those funded and aided by the United States and its allies.
But here’s my bottom line: The U.S. has no business overthrowing governments. The use of humanitarian justifications for U.S. wars? It’s vapid, bankrupt bullshit. Don’t tell me you’re intervening to stop a genocide in Syria while simultaneously facilitating one in Yemen. Don’t tell me that after you lied about WMDs in Iraq, that now the mission is saving people from Saddam. I could go on for quite a while here. Just look at the U.S. record of destabilizing — well, the entire Middle East — and actually directly contributing to the horrors that now have gone on unabated for years and years in Syria.
Some people may believe that the U.S. should be the global cop, but if so, that’s one dirty cop — dirty to the core. That cop should not be trusted to rescue your cat from a tree. Here’s Trump’s U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley at the U.N. Security Council pushing for war based on this attack.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley: Who does this? Only a monster does this. Only a monster target civilians and then ensures that there are no ambulances to transfer the wounded, no hospitals to save their lives, no doctors or medicine to ease their pain.
JS: I think the use of chemical weapons is an unconscionable atrocity. They should be banned and those who facilitate their use should be held accountable under international law — and I don’t mean the selective U.S. interpretation of international law. At the same time, I wonder why these weapons have been singled out and seem to immediately justify all manner of bombing or military attack or maybe even an invasion. The U.S. uses banned munitions — cluster bombs. The U.S. has used white phosphorous, which is only legal because the United States has intervened to make it so. The U.S has bombed weddings and funerals, and it’s done double-tap drone strikes. It’s bombed hospitals and shot up ambulances and killed first responders. The point here is that many of the things that Nikki Haley cited have also been done in one form or another by the U.S. and its allies, and she says, “only a monster does this.”
President Barack Obama: There’s no doubt that some innocent people have been killed by drone strikes.
Amy Goodman: Five so-called double-tap strikes took place in mid-2012, one of which also struck a mosque.
Brian Williams: From a U.S. drone strike in Yemen that missed its target this week and struck what witnesses described as a wedding party.
Michelle Norris: The Pentagon is defending its use of white phosphorus in the battle for Fallujah last year. If the ignited particles land on a person, they can burn through the flesh, right through to the bone.
Amy Goodman: A suspected U.S. airstrike Saturday on an Afghan hospital in the city of Kunduz that killed 22 people — 12 staff members and 10 patients, including 3 children.
JS: And I’m just talking about the recent past here involving the U.S. — we could go back and talk about the Brits using chemical weapons and the U.S. using napalm or Agent Orange or the U.S. being the only nation to ever use a nuclear bomb. As of this moment, the U.S. and its allies continue to use internationally banned weapons, including cluster bombs. It’s as though there are some victims who become more worthy than others depending on the munition that’s used to kill them indiscriminately, or based on the identity of the particular force that’s using the weapon.
But chemical weapons seem to be this special trigger for war-mongering. Here’s Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal:
Senator Richard Blumenthal: The response has to have some military component so as to disable al Assad’s ability to use these chemical weapons because clearly, the commitments he’s made are unreliable.
JS: I agree that we should hold those who use chemical weapons accountable, and let’s have an independent investigation about this recent incident in Syria. But there is no case to be made for not doing the exact same thing with those who authorize the use of cluster munitions, which shred human beings into ground meat on a massive radius.
Right now, the world has international courts that can hold Bashar al Assad accountable. But those same courts have been completely defanged when it comes to holding U.S., Israeli, British, Saudi leaders, NATO leaders accountable. I believe that Assad is a war criminal, and if the U.S. did not do everything in its power to make sure that international law is never applied to the United States and its friends then it would be much easier to hold people like Assad accountable without it feeding into an unfortunately accurate narrative about the grotesque double standard and utter hypocrisy that’s on display every time the U.S. bombs or invades countries and is never brought to justice.
This drive to war by politicians is not actually about chemical weapons: It’s about American exceptionalism and hollow moral posturing. It’s about the military-industrial complex and its latest toys of war. It’s about the grand bipartisan addiction to the idea that the U.S. military is a hammer that always needs to find a nail. This focus on: Did Assad use chemical weapons or not? It’s an important one, but it should not be used to justify even more militarism particularly by the United States in the Middle East.
Joining me now to discuss all of this is the military and war historian Andrew Bacevich. He’s a professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University, and he’s the author of many important books, most recently “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.” Andrew, welcome to Intercepted.
Andrew Bacevich: Thank you.
JS: So, let’s just begin with the big picture. I want to set aside the discussion of Bashar al Assad and his human rights record and whether he’s a war criminal, et cetera, and just talk first about this notion that’s being pushed by both Democrats and now Trump and the Republicans, that the right response to a chemical weapons attack, if that is what happened here, is somehow the solution to the brutality in Syria. How do you see this current push to escalating military action in Syria?
AB: Well, it wasn’t the solution the last time we did this, about a year ago, when Trump ordered an attack on a Syrian airbase, and I don’t know why the outcome would be any different today. It seems to me that what we are witnessing, and I say we, those of us are trying to make sense of U.S. actions in the region, what we’re witnessing really amounts to expressions of frustration. We have managed to become bogged down in a war or series of wars that no longer have any plausible purpose, relative to U.S. interests, but nonetheless policymakers are at a loss for how to get out. So some atrocity like this occurs, and reflexively there is this inclination to lash out. But lashing out really becomes an excuse for not having a strategy.
JS: When you look back at the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, when the WMD lies fell apart, then Bush sort of transitioned and said: Well, we had to intervene because Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and it’s good that he’s gone.
President George W. Bush: The main reason we went into Iraq at the time was we thought he had weapons of mass destruction — turns out he didn’t, but he had the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction. But I also talked about the human suffering in Iraq, and I also talked the need to advance a freedom agenda. And so my question, my answer to your question, is that imagine a world in which Saddam Hussein was there, stirring up even more trouble in a part of the world that had so much resentment and so much hatred that three — people came and killed 3,000 of our citizens.
JS: You look now and Saddam Hussein’s popularity has never been higher and that war was an utter disaster that, in part, contributed to what we’re seeing now in Syria. How is it that the political classes in this country, the elites, are able to continuously sell this idea that American intervention is actually aimed at bringing stability, when the history, particularly in that region, says that that’s a total lie, not backed up by historical fact?
AB: Well I think one important contributing factor is the inattention of the American people. I concur with your description — your, you know, very abbreviated description of what’s happened since 2003 — but I don’t see the American people being particularly aware of the extent of our failure. They’re not particularly aware of the costs that we have absorbed — costs whether we’re talking about American soldiers killed, injured, trillions of dollars expended. They’re not particularly aware of the costs imposed on supposed beneficiaries of our liberation, the hundreds of thousands of people killed, probably a couple million displaced.
So, given the lack of public attention, policymakers don’t feel any particular pressure to rethink the course that we embarked upon way back in 2002, 2003. I think it’s cheaper and easier for them — I say cheaper, politically — cheaper and easier for them simply to indulge this sort of petulant response to something like this latest ostensible chemical attack.
JS: I wanted to ask you about the conflicting statements of major world powers on this recent, what appears to be a chemical attack in this suburb of Damascus. A couple of weeks ago Russian top brass were warning that al Nusra and Free Syrian Army were plotting chemical attacks in Syria. A lot of people who are sort of onside for this with Russia are saying that this may be a false flag, or this may have been rebels, or this may be some sort of a fabricated scene by human rights groups that are allegedly tied to NATO. How do you see this? Because the one part of the set I sort of am sympathetic to is it really doesn’t make sense strategically for Assad to have done this, if he did — I’m not saying I know, he very well may have. But how do you see this discussion and debate where you have one camp that just immediately says: Aha, this was Assad! And then the other camp saying: Well, look, you know, Russia is denying this; they’re saying it’s a false flag. Who do we even trust in this stuff?
AB: What you’re describing is an argument that is conducted prior to us having ascertained the facts — to rush to judgment, to announce that, yes, we know for certain Assad did this. But it’s also a rush to judgment. To make the obvious case, I don’t know what the facts are. I think I would argue strongly that before the United States takes any further military action, it will likely deepen our involvement in the Syrian civil war that could potentially increase the likelihood of us coming into conflict with other powers that decision-makers ought to ensure that they have the facts. You know, to my way of thinking, let’s hold off, let’s try to find out what actually happened, let’s find out who the actual perpetrators are and then from that point make a decision.
JS: Why is it that the issue of chemical weapons seems to be this sort of line that now the public has been told if it’s crossed, there has to be an immediate swift response. I mean there are weapons systems that the U.S. uses that are not nuclear, chemical, or biological but kill tremendous numbers of people, including cluster munitions and TLAMs and others. What’s your view on sort of the way that that the issue of chemical weapons is discussed? I mean is it right to say, well this is in a totally different category and requires a much greater level of moral outrage than weapons systems used by the U.S., and the Saudis, and the Israelis?
AB: I don’t think so. I mean, the last thing I would want to do would be an apologist for the Assad regime — whoever did use chemical weapons, it was a despicable act. But I noted it was about a week ago there was an article about the number of people killed in Mosul during the campaign to “liberate Mosul.” It described the number of U.S. airstrikes, I think was 25,000 pieces of ordnance dumped on Mosul during the campaign there. And the upshot was that the number of civilians killed in Mosul, certainly not all killed by the United States, but many of them were, is vastly greater than anybody was willing to admit. And that’s a story that got almost zero attention.
So here we are, all excited and up in arms about 40 people being killed — and again, I do not wish to diminish for a second the depravity of that action — but one has to wonder why American killing of civilians on a much larger scale somehow doesn’t have the same sort of political resonance? And it ought to, and if it did, then it seems to me that the discussion over the use of force and its consequences would be much more grounded in genuine pragmatic considerations, and also would be grounded in moral considerations that are largely absent.
JS: You also have the fact that the United States forces in Fallujah and the Israelis do this also, use white phosphorous in some of their operations. That is akin to chemical weapons in terms of its impact on people. But to your broader point, we’re now saying, basically Trump’s being goaded into, you know, some scorched-earth response or just lobbing cruise missiles again. I mean, we don’t know which, but as we’re sort of looking at this we also have the Saudis just utterly exterminating Yemen right now with the continued support of the United States and the British and they’re treated in very different ways. It’s, you know, cable news today is just filled with Democrats and Republicans basically trying to push Trump to do maximum military force, and those same people are totally fine with Yemen being destroyed by the U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and it’s, you know, and the new best friend of the American media, Mohammad bin Salman.
AB: Well, you’re exactly right — we mock president Trump for his short attention span, but the whole country has a short attention span. I mean. I think it’s Gore Vidal who coined that great phrase “United States of Amnesia.” And that’s exactly right. We forget anything that we find inconvenient to forget. You remember when Trump in an interview with a reporter, Trump’s responses was: What do you think, we’re innocent?
DJT: We got a lot of killers. Got a lot of killers. Why? You think our country is so innocent? You think our country is so innocent?
Bill O’Reilly: I don’t know of any government leaders that are killers.
DJT: Well, take a look at what we’ve done, too.
AB: You know, the idiot speaking wisdom suddenly. So, there is this deep-seated tendency, I think perhaps it’s more prominent in the political class than in the larger public, but the larger public is not immune to it, this deep-seated inclination to think that we are somehow innocent. Sure, we make mistakes, but the mistakes we made ought not to be held against us, and therefore when we come to a moment like this new chemical weapons crisis, we approach it as if we are innocent and it is an enduring quality, I think, of the American mentality.
JS: Right, this is sort of the broader point that I’m getting at. The United States, in the 1980s, at the height of Saddam Hussein’s brutality, lifted Iraq off of the list of state sponsors of terrorism so that the United States could sell and transfer massive amounts of weaponry, including components for chemical weapons and attack helicopters to use those chemical weapons in Halabja to Saddam Hussein. And now we’re being asked to believe that the appropriate global police officer to handle such matters, when despots and dictators do this, is the United States.
It’s not that I don’t believe that Bashar al Assad is a war criminal. I absolutely believe he’s a war criminal. I, however, do not believe that the U.S. has the moral authority to sort of step in and say: Oh, we’re going to be the ones to stop all evil here, particularly given the U.S. track record in the region.
AB: You’re exactly right. I mean, it’s just very disturbing.
JS: What do you make of this question of Bashar al Assad, and obviously he has committed war crimes, how should, you know, people who believe in justice and are not taking the side of Assad and they don’t want U.S. intervention. Like, how should we understand what should be done about the situation in Syria, and particularly whether Bashar al Assad remains in power?
AB: Well my view is that the first-order question relates to the well being of the innocents, the real innocents, who are caught in the middle of this thing. So I say: All right, so what can we do? Well, we can go drop some bombs on Syrian forces. Will that alleviate the suffering of the Syrians who are caught in the middle of this mess? Seems to me if we actually cared about them, we would exert ourselves to find some way to remove as many Syrians as possible from the zone of war. Get them out of there! Bring them to the United States of America. This land of liberty. This vast country. Bring them here.
Could we bring them all here? No! What if we saved 200,000 lives, 500,000 lives? Wouldn’t protect everybody, but that would be a real action that would address real suffering. Dropping more bombs does not do that. Of course, as soon as I say that, you’re sitting there shaking your head, saying: What is this guy, off his nut? Because the American people will not tolerate bringing a quarter of a million or a half a million Syrians to our country. And the very fact that they won’t, I think, reveals how phony all of the moralizing that becomes part of this sort of a moment.
When Trump attacks Syria, as he probably will, he will do so without getting the permission of Congress, almost for sure. So we’ll launch 50 cruise missiles, 100 cruise missiles, who knows what the number it will be. It will cost some tens of millions of dollars. The Congress will immediately re-appropriate necessary money to build new missiles to replace those that are expended. We’ll pat ourselves on the back for having confronted evil, and we will have done nothing to benefit the Syrians who are actually suffering as a consequence of this civil war. I mean the entire thing is really kind of Orwellian.
JS: As we wrap up, I want to ask you about the bigger geopolitical picture here, particularly with regard to Russia. Part of what I’m seeing here is that, for the first year of his administration, Trump refused to ever say any anything negative about Putin. He did take some sort of mild actions in response to various things that the Russians did, but lately, and really in the last month, we’ve seen this dramatic escalation in the rhetoric against Russia coming out of the Trump White House, to the point where Trump even entertained the idea that Vladimir Putin would personally be punished for this alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.
DJT: He may, yeah, he may. And if he does, it’s going to be very tough. Very tough. Everybody is going to pay a price, he will. Everybody will.
JS: And I’m looking at this and thinking, OK, everyone was sort of trying to push Trump on Putin, saying he’s in Putin’s pocket. See? He won’t ever say anything about Russia. And now we have a president openly saying with no evidence that Putin may be held responsible for this, he’s going to pay a serious price. I’m concerned that what we’re seeing right now, and part of it is because pundits and the Democrats have been so fierce in going after Trump about his public stance on Russia, that we are entering a moment now where the commander-in-chief of the United States is openly belligerent against Russia. I can’t remember in my adult life this kind of a situation just in terms of the rhetoric between the American president and Russia. What’s your sense of that?
AB: Well, it’s, you know, it’s so hard to know what to make of president Trump. And I guess I mean it’s so hard to know what to make of the things that he says and the things that he tweets. The record of contradictions and inconsistencies that he has created, I think, is unprecedented.
I myself firmly believe that he does not have a worldview. He is incapable of really thinking in strategic terms. That he reacts impulsively. The impulse might be to launch some tweet at 5 o’clock in the morning. The impulse might be to meet with a handful of his advisers in a 180-degree reversal of what he said the previous day. And that’s part of his great danger, and so as we try to gauge the direction of U.S. policy, whether it’s with regard to Russia, or the war in the Middle East or relations with China, one of the things we have to puzzle out is who are the advisers that seem to shape his thinking?
I mean advisers could be the people on Fox News. Advisers could be people like Bolton, or Pompeo, or Mattis. In order to try to forecast the way things are headed, we need to have a more finely grained understanding of the advisers that count with Trump.
JS: I mean he’s a very malleable hunk of clay, in a lot of ways. I do think that there is a unique danger here, because of this phenomenon that you’re describing, and it’s like we watch this almost, it’s almost like a bipolar situation, where you have, on the one hand, Trump saying, “Oh, we’re going to be out of Syria soon, ISIS is almost defeated,” and then literally days later “Vladimir Putin may be held accountable personally for a chemical weapons attack in Syria.” I mean it’s, it’s like, who the hell is even running that ship?
And then you have the great mustache come in, John Bolton, who is just salivating to go to war with basically every non-white country on the planet. And we have a very incendiary situation. And these guys are also very serious Russia hawks. These guys cut their teeth as Cold Warriors, basically still believe in fighting the evil empire of the Soviet Union. I think that combination of Trump’s weakness and sort of tendency to flip-flop constantly, and then people like Bolton, Pompeo, Gina Haspel, and Mattis, I would include in that, whispering his ear, it’s pretty frightening.
AB: I agree. One of the things that makes this present Syria crisis frightening is I think you could argue this is the first genuine national security crisis that we’ve had since he’s been president. Now it could be that we’re going to have another perfunctory cruise-missile attack and the story will fade. It could be, and this is the real danger, that there will be a larger or more prolonged military effort, and one that could, not necessarily intentionally, in matter of fact, probably unintentionally, could end up bringing us into a conflict or near-conflict situation with Russia and/or Iran, with no doubt the government of Israel pushing from the sidelines. And that’s where our impetuous, ignorant president, surrounded by the hawks that you just described, that’s where you really can begin to see a nightmare scenario moving into the realm of plausibility.
JS: Yeah, and you know Trump was making a big deal and bragging about how he used the MOAB in Afghanistan, the mother of all bombs. I mean it it’s also a plausible scenario that Trump responds to this by hitting Damascus with this kind of massive munition. I mean, it could be that a tremendous number of people get killed in retaliation for this event before the U.N. has even been able to carry out an investigation.
AB: Yeah, and you are describing a scenario that then could easily slip out of control. And we end up with this ignorant president trying then to address a circumstance that he himself would not understand, and where his impulsiveness could really get us in big trouble. So this is a very dangerous moment.
JS: Well, Andrew Bacevich, I want to thank you very much for your analysis, and all of the books you’ve written, and the critical thinking, backed up by history, that you always bring to the table. Thanks so much for being with us.
AB: Thank you.
JS: Andrew Bacevich is a military and war historian. His latest book is “America’s War for the Greater Middle East.” He’s a frequent contributor to TomDispatch.
JS: About 20 years ago, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy published her debut novel “The God of Small Things.” It won the ultra-prestigious Man Booker Prize and it propelled her to international fame. But it wasn’t until last year that her second novel came out. That book is called, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.” Both of these novels are beautiful, powerful, epic stories.
So what did Arundhati Roy do for those 20 years in between, besides working on her latest novel? She used her very significant global platform to fight for justice in causes and with movements around the world. In India, she has been an advocate for the most vulnerable and dehumanized people. She spent extensive time in Kashmir. She has defended Muslims in India when they’ve been threatened, attacked or massacred. She’s published many, many nonfiction books and collections of her speeches, including such titles as “Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers,” “War Talk,” “Walking With Comrades,” and “The End of Imagination.”
Most recently, she and the actor John Cusack wrote a book on their meeting with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, whom they traveled to see in Moscow with Pentagon Papers-whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. That book is called “Things That Can and Cannot Be Said.” Arundhati Roy is going to be coming to the U.S. in May, and she’ll be speaking in a number of cities. I’m very proud to call her a friend, and she joins me now from New Delhi.
Arundhati, welcome to Intercepted.
Arundhati Roy: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: And congratulations on your second novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.”
AR: Oh, thank you again.
JS: So, I want to begin just by asking you about the dedication. You dedicated this novel to “The Unconsoled” and I’ve seen you in the past say that all of us, in some way, are the unconsoled. But talk about that dedication.
AR: The dedication is to those people who, like the people in the book, don’t fit into the categories that the ruling establishment, as well as, quite often, the radical resistance put people in – particularly the categories in India, because we are a nation of minority, a nation that is divided into this tiny little fretwork of caste, and ethnicity, and language, and each is pitted against. And yet, all serves a pretty ancient hierarchy.
In some ways, this is dedicated to everybody, but to everybody who, in some real ways, doesn’t fit into that very complex grid that we are asked to fit into, and then jump up and down in, and even be radical in. You know?
JS: In the reviews that I read of the book so many of them get wrong the identity of one of your central characters, Anjum. They identify Anjum as a transgender woman. But in fact Anjum, who was born Aftab, was born with both male and female gender organs and, you know, I think it would be really interesting if you could sort of explain that character, the reaction of her mother when she’s born and realizes that her child is not simply a male in gender.
AR: Her mother, Anjum’s mother, Jahanara Begum, when she discovers that about her baby, you know, she goes through a series of reactions. But fundamentally and eventually, the problem for her is that her baby is beyond words in her languages, because Urdu, which is the language that she speaks, genders everything: chairs, carpets, musical instruments, books, of course, men and women but everything has a gender except her baby. And so the question the book asks is: Is it possible to live outside of language?
Anjum, for example as a character, who people like to often ask me: Why did you choose to write about her and describe her as transgender. In fact, you know, she has more than just one identity. She’s also born as a Shia Muslim and lives through a time when this is a more dangerous identity in India than being a hijra, which is the Urdu word for people like here, you know?
And eventually as you read the book, you see, that she gets caught up in the 2002 massacre of Muslims that took place in Gujarat, and she gets caught up because she is a Shia, not because she’s a hijra, witnessing the massacre that took place around her and left alive because the murderous think that to kill a hijra would bring them bad luck.
There’s a Dalit character, whose name used to be Dayachand, who becomes a Muslim because he too witnesses carnage against his own father. So, he has the border of caste and religious conversion running through him.
JS: Well and he takes the name, Saddam Hussein.
AR: He takes the name Saddam Hussein because he has a video in his phone, which he admires, of Saddam Hussein’s execution. And he says, “Even if he was a bastard, I want to be a bastard like him.” You know?
It’s really, I mean it wasn’t something that I planned, but honestly, you know, the sense that we live in a grid here and these characters are all slightly off-grid, and through them, you shine the light on the grid, you know?
JS: Talk about how your real-world experience in Kashmir and the real-world experience of your friends and others in Kashmir made its way into this novel.
AR: I mean “The Ministry” is not a book where, you know, I had a manifesto or that I wanted to write about the battle in Kashmir or about caste or about what is happening in the forests of Bastar, but this is the air we breathe, you know? For me to avoid all this would be like taking some very complicated yoga position, you know, to try and write where you don’t look these things straight in the eye. And for me this has been my life for the last 20 years, you know? These are not just isolated issues that I’m trying to shed light on.
But to me, for Indian intellectuals, for Indian writers to have managed to write for so many years without mentioning caste in any real way, without talking about Kashmir, where, every summer, hundreds of people young people are being blinded by pellets, and all of this is so delicately airbrushed out. And we get our delicate fiction and our sophisticated analysis of identity without mentioning caste, without mentioning Kashmir — the upholding of this nation as the land of Gandhi and yoga and nonviolence, when in fact there has not been a single day since August 15, 1947, when India was declared independent that the Indian Army has not been deployed “within its own borders, against its own people.” Whether it’s Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Hyderabad, Punjab, Goa, Bastar, it’s just a nation that is nailed together by military might, and we try to avoid thinking about it.
And when I write fiction, I’m not trying to write subjects; I’m not putting puppets on a page and trying to make them leave out some political manifesto of mine. You know? But I’m creating a universe in which I invite people to walk through.
JS: What is the significance of cemeteries in the book, and particularly this cemetery where Anjum builds the guesthouse.
AR: Anjum, I spoke about, you know, the fact that she survives the massacre in Gujarat which is, again, of course, a true event where in 2002 than a 1,500 Muslims were just massacred on the streets of the metropolises and towns and cities and villages of Gujarat, when Modi, the current prime minister was chief minister. So Anjum returns from Gujarat to Delhi devastated and unable to live the life she lived all these years. And she moves out of the Khwabgah, the place that she shared with this group of hijras, and she moves into a graveyard where she begins — she just lives there like this wild fearless, specter. She is just unmoored in grief. And, of course, a cemetery or a graveyard in India is usually a Muslim graveyard.
As you know, the Hindus, don’t bury their dead — they cremate their dead. So graveyards have also, in this extreme communalization, in which Muslims have been pushed to the bottom of the economic and social chain, you know? They are now denied housing. They’ve been pushed out of the political arena. They are, you know, lynched on the streets now openly and so on. And so graveyards have become a kind of ghetto, you know, where people congregate.
In the last elections in U.P., Modi and the current chief minister made big politics out of the fact that all the graveyards are consuming electricity and water — these Muslims, in other words. Of course people like Modi and so on, they belong to an organization called the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is the real political power today, not the BJP, and it’s an organization that was started in 1925, and its ideologues, [are] open admirers of Hitler and Mussolini, have openly said in the past that the Muslims of India are like the Jews of Germany. And, you know, in the last elections they proved to the world and to themselves and to the people of this country that you don’t need the Muslim vote. You know? So the Muslims are somehow disenfranchised right now. The Dalits have always been disenfranchised, but now the Dalit vote has been courted and there’s a lot of trouble around that because intrinsically they hate the Dalits too, you know, that is the Hindu caste system, you know for them? Whatever name you call them.
JS: But now there are millionaire Dalits.
AR: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean anything.
JS: No, no, I know —
AR: If you actually look at the poorest of the poor, the landless, the jobless, they’re all Dalits. And, of course, that is how you neutralize someone. You create a tiny elite and then say, “Look, they’re millionaires.” And even the millionaires, by the way, will not be accepted in society. They will still be Dalits. But it’s a bit like saying, “Oh look, you have Michael Jordan and you have a few millionaire black actors and therefore there’s no racism in America.” You know?
JS: Arundhati, part of the reason that I brought up the fact that there are some millionaire Dalits now is sort of because we have a similar phenomenon. It’s not a direct analog but it’s a similar strand that you’re describing. I mean we had Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States and, you know, the narrative about that in sort of mainstream political circles is, “Aha! We’ve shattered this glass ceiling and now we have a black man as president.” And yet you look at the condition that many black people live in in this country, particularly with police violence and economic apartheid and it’s like: Did it really change anything? You know, you can siphon off certain elites and say this represents a new America, but in reality, the same exact issues are facing the very people from the black communities, Native American communities, undocumented immigrant communities, and on, and on.
AR: Yes, I mean the fact is that it applies to, you know, having a woman prime minister and so on as well. The same story about — does that change anything for women? There is something to be said when something like that happens, but does it change anything on the ground or has it changed anything on the ground is a big question? I would say that nothing at all has ever changed in India on the question of caste, because we are talking about people who used to be forced to walk backward and sweep away their footprints or hang pots around their necks so that the spit wouldn’t pollute the ground.
My heart broke the other day because you read about a young Dalit boy who was beaten to death because he dared to ride a horse in Gujarat. You know, and to me, he was Saddam Hussein on his horse, and his horse led the funeral procession. He was beaten to death by the upper castes, you know? Every day you have this kind of bludgeoning, lynching, beating, and when you have elections, all you hear about is which caste is going to work for whom and so and, and then when it comes to actually talking about the horrors that are visited upon people because of their caste, there’s a silence. It’s very, very complicated — I mean, I’ve written a little book, which was published by Haymarket, called “The Doctor and the Saint” where, it’s really about the debate between Dr. Ambedkar, the great Dalit leader at the time of the independence struggle and Gandhi.
Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar: Now if you read the two papers, you will see how Mr. Gandhi was deceiving the people. In the English paper, he posed himself as an opponent of the caste system and of untouchability. And that he was a Democrat. But if you read a Gujarati magazine, you will see him he was more an orthodox man, he has been supporting the caste system, varna ashrama dharma, and all the orthodox dogmas which have been keeping India down all through the ages.
AR: People completely have no idea about what Gandhi’s attitudes to caste and race were. You know? That falsification of that story is mind-blowing. Most people know the struggle of Indian independence through Richard Attenborough’s film, unfortunately, called “Gandhi.” That film is a piece of fiction, and through the struggle for independence Gandhi’s greatest antagonist was Dr. Ambedkar.
BRA: I met him first in 1929, through the intervention of a friend of mine, [a] common friend who asked Mr. Gandhi to see me. And so, Mr. Gandhi wrote to me saying that he would like to see me. So I went and saw him.
AR: He doesn’t even make an appearance in the film. He doesn’t even show up there. Gandhi insisted that he was the representative of all untouchables, as Dalits were call then, and the great confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar happened in 1930, at the Second Roundtable Conference in London, when Ambedkar’s arguing for a separate constituency temporarily for Dalits so that they could develop into a political community.
BRA: We want untouchability to be abolished. We also want that we must be given equal opportunity so that we may rise to the level of the other classes. But the other things, which are far more important, namely that they should have the same status in the country and they should have the opportunity to hold high offices so that not only their dignity will rise, but also they will get what I call strategic positions. From it they could, they could protect their own people; Mr. Gandhi was totally opposed. Totally opposed!
AR: They are scattered. Every village in India has a small settlement of Dalits outside the village. They can never be a full political constituency. Gandhi went on a hunger fast to the death until that was withdrawn — the idea of a separate electorate, you know? But even when you look at what happened in South Africa, all of us are taught that Gandhi went to South Africa, was thrown off a train and this was his first political education, and from then on he started fighting against segregation. This is complete crap.
The first battle Gandhi fought in South Africa was to have a separate entrance to the Durban post office because he believed that Indians, who he said were descendants of the Aryans, should not share the same entrance with blacks, who he consistently refer to as kafirs and savages. He fasted in prison to have separate prisons, separate food and the satyagraha that he started was not for racial equality, it was to allow Indian tradesmen into the Transvaal to trade.
And so the whole story has been completely distorted, which is not to say that Gandhi was not a brilliant politician, you know? I don’t want to take anything away from him. But I do want to say that the amount of deceit and intellectual dishonesty that has gone into the construction of this narrative is shameful.
JS: You know we, in the United States and on this show, we’ve talked a lot about how powerful people and pop culture have sanitized the legacies of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks to the point where, you know, I think many people who have studied Martin Luther King’s life believe or agree that he would never be invited to his own Martin Luther King Day celebrations today because he was too radical.
Talking about your description of Gandhi, who benefited from the creation of that narrative around Gandhi?
AR: The Indian upper caste elite, obviously. Because in “The Doctor and the Saint,” what I call him is the saint of the status quo. It was time for the British to give way to this upper-caste elite. Even this whole preaching of nonviolence as the only revolutionary thing. What does it mean? I keep saying you know I travel to the forests of central India today. Ten years ago, today, now, all the time. You have tens of thousands of paramilitary forces unleashed in those forests, because MoUs have been signed with mining companies, 1,000 paramilitaries will go to a village, an indigenous peoples village, four days walk from the main road — surround it, burn it, rape the women, steal the cattle and go. And then in the television studios, when these people have reacted militantly, violently with the commandos and guerrilla forces, but in the studios, they’ll start calling them terrorists.
I said, you know, what should those people do, you tell me? Should they go on a hunger strike? They are already starving. Should they boycott foreign goods? They don’t have any goods. They don’t have an audience to do any sort of nonviolent satyagraha. You need a sympathetic audience. You need a superstar.
Honestly, Jeremy, if you go traveling to India through the poorest places of India, you will not find a picture of Mahatma Gandhi in any poor person’s house. You will find a picture Ambedkar. Gandhi will be in the government local collector’s house, or in the government office, or whatever. But you will not find it in a poor person’s house, you know?
JS: As I was preparing to talk to you, I was remembering, you and I met back in 2004 at this time, when the streets of, you were in New York, and the streets were sort of around the clock filled with protesters who had come from, really, around the world on the occasion of the Republican National Convention.
James O’Neill: My name is Inspector James O’Neill. You are obstructing pedestrian traffic. I’m ordering you to leave this sidewalk. If you do so voluntarily, no charges will be placed against you.
JS: And George Bush and Dick Cheney were running for re-election, and you and Amy Goodman and I went into the Republican National Convention, we got you a credential so that you could go past this massive security apparatus. And we stood on the floor of the Republican National Convention just a few feet away from Dick Cheney. And he spoke that night and gave this very belligerent war speech.
Vice President Dick Cheney: Just as surely as the Nazis during World War II, and the Soviets during the Cold War, the enemy we face today is bent on our destruction. As in other times, we are in a war we did not start and have no choice but to win. [Audience cheers and applauds.]
JS: And I remember you talking about being in sort of this stadium filled with killers, and people egging them on and cheering them on.
AR: I actually, you know, don’t know what to say, because it’s like being in a cult, a place where people are kind of chanting, which veered between chilling and corny, so I’m still confused about which one it was, but I’m sure it was actually chilling, cause to be in a place which is where the richest and most powerful people in the world meet, to plot the next war, the next massacre, the next bombing.
JS: Your reflection on where we are now, versus where we were at that moment, when you and Dick Cheney were in the same room.
AR: (Laughs.) Me and Dick Cheney. Obviously, on the face of fate, your president is somebody who is managing to confuse everybody in the establishment, including the Republicans themselves. You know? But ultimately, I still am waiting to see whether it is in fact an empire on the wane or not. Because there is a white nations agenda, isn’t there, in the world? I mean, Europe and America eventually will hold together, you know? And day-to-day, are the biggest merchants of death: We are doing the buying and they are doing the selling of all the weapons. And that is the fundamental strength of the economy now.
So there can’t be peace on earth when, just to keep these economies going, you need to be at war. Since 9/11, how many countries have been destroyed, and all of us keep talking about this fundamental Islam, but when you look at the countries that have been destroyed, none of them were really fundamentalist Islamic states, you know? Those ones are of course your allies.
Like a lot of people like to compare Trump to Modi. But to me Trump is like someone who has grown out of the toxic effluent of a system that went very wrong, you know? But I see that every elite American institution is against Trump — the media is against him, the military is suspicious of him, the economists are suspicious of him, the White House itself is suspicious of him, blundering around there. But nobody knows what to do because you don’t have any system in place to deal with a lunatic in the White House, so — you don’t know what to do.
But in the case of India, you know, Modi is very much the deep state. He is the product of planning from 1925 for this moment when — they’re almost there — when they can change the Indian Constitution, call it a Hindu nation. So you have a situation here which is the opposite: where the army, the corporates, the media the elite, everybody has been supporting him. Everything is just frozen. And continuously, this venom is being dripped into people’s brains about: India should be a Hindu country and Muslims should be ghettoized, Dalits should be disenfranchised in some way. There’s an attack on institutions the history books are being written by complete cretens.
So what’s going to happen to the next generation? They will be unable to think unless they find non-formal ways of going to school and college. You know?
JS: As we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about something that you said years ago that I actually think about often, and it deals with the, I think, moral challenge that we often find ourselves in, people who believe in justice, and that is that, you know, we don’t have an ability or even a moral authority to choose the form of resistance that rises up in response to the crimes of the imperial nations around the world, and it was during the Iraq war, and really as the Iraqi armed resistance started to really take a toll on the U.S. occupation, and you said the following: “You support the resistance but you may not support the vision that they’re fighting for, and I keep saying I’m doomed to fight on the side of people that have no space for me in their social imagination, and I would probably be the first person that was strung up if they won, but the point is that they’re the ones that are resisting on the ground and they have to be supported, because what is happening is unbelievable.”
I recently was thinking about this in the context of what is happening in Syria and Iraq and in Palestine —
AR: In Kashmir —
JS: — where the Israelis just committed another massacre, and in Kashmir and then historically the genocidal campaigns against the Kurds. Are there any forces of resistance that are worth your support right now, in any of these conflicts? I mean, I am against what the United States and Russia and all of these powerful nations are doing in Syria. At the same time, who is the resistance in Syria? And I don’t mean, Arundhati, explain the different factions.
AR: Well, honestly, Jeremy I don’t think that the way to resist this is for me or you to go to Syria and support some faction or the other. You know because the problem is at your home. The problem is to take it down there in the United States, or to take it down here in India. You know I, in many ways, am obviously deeply entrenched here, and deeply grounded here, and here certainly there are many, many, many people and many organizations and many ways in which the resistance that is being raised is wonderful, you know?
What my issues, let’s say when I think about something like Kashmir, is that it’s not my business to think necessarily about what kind of Kashmir is being fought for, but it’s certainly my business as somebody in whose name this violence is perpetrated to stand up and say it as it is: we need to do it in the places where things are being done, it doesn’t help for you to go to Syria. It helps for you to be where you are, and to prevent that from happening in whatever way you can. For me, I need to know the place where I stand and why I stand there.
JS: Hmm. Well, I think that’s a really great note to end on. Arundhati Roy, thank you so much for talking with me.
AR: You’re welcome, Jeremy.
JS: Arundhati Roy is the author of two novels. Her first, “The God of Small Things,” won the Man Booker Prize. Her new novel is called “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.” Both of them are beautiful, deep, powerful books that I highly recommend.
If you want to catch Arundhati Roy when she’s here in the U.S., you can find a list of her events by going to roamagency.com/roy. That’s roam, R-O-A-M, as in, roaming the planet: roamagency.com/roy.
JS: As Donald Trump contemplates an escalation of U.S. military action in Syria, we should note that he has also been ramping up the number of drone strikes across the Middle East since he came to power. The first U.S. drone strike ever reported in southern Libya occurred just last month. It was Obama, the so-called antiwar candidate, the constitutional law scholar, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was calling for us all to get behind these precision drone strikes — his smarter way to wage war, better than boots on the ground and less loss of civilian life.
BO: It is not true that it is been this sort of willy-nilly, you know, let’s bomb a village. That is not how folks have operated. And what I can say with great certainty is that the rate of civilian casualties in any drone operation are far lower than the rate of civilian casualties that occur in conventional war.
JS: The reality, though, was that in some so-called targeted killing operations, as many as nine out of ten people killed were not the intended target, and they were, as a matter of policy, labeled EKIA, or enemies killed in action. It was basically a macabre mathematical formula that was used by the Obama White House widely to claim that no civilians, or only a limited number of civilians, were being killed. The idea was: Well if we don’t know who they are, let’s first label them an enemy that we killed, unless someone posthumously proves that they were a civilian or an innocent bystander. It’s pretty sick.
Who can be held accountable when drone strikes kill the “wrong person” or they hit innocent women and children, or weddings or funerals? Is it the president? Is it the CIA or the military entities that authorized the strike? Is it the soldier who pressed the button somewhere in a drone operations center? What about the role that ordinary people play in all of this? Aren’t we all complicit in this new, sanitized, robotic mass-killing program?
A new audio drama, “Evening at the Talk House” is going to be premiering next Wednesday here on Intercepted. It’s written by Wallace Shawn. And I don’t want to give away anything or spoil the plot, but let’s just say that it deals with this world of so-called targeted killing, and the moral responsibility that we all should hold.
The play is set in a fictional world that closely parallels our own, but it has some subtle and not-so-subtle differences.
[“Talk House” promo plays.]
JS: Wally Shawn has had a long career in film, television, and stage, both as a writer and as an actor. He’s known for his roles in “The Princess Bride.”
Wallace Shawn (as Vizzini): Inconceivable!
Mandy Patinkin (as Inigo Montoya): You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.
JS: “My Dinner with Andre” —
WS (as Wally): I would never give my electric blanket, Andrew. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold!
JS: And Wally Shawn lent his voice to the anxious T-Rex in Toy Story.
WS (as Rex): Woody, look, I can see daylight! We’re going to be okay! Ha ha ha!
JS: Wally describes himself as a socialist. He’s an activist and he definitely is a prolific playwright and essayist. His latest book, “Night Thoughts,” talks about Trump, extremism, privilege, and capitalism. I really think that this new drama, “Evening at the Talk House” is going to resonate with a lot of people — particularly at this dark moment we find ourselves in.
It’s a play about a group of actors who spend an evening together after ten years apart. They reminisce about old times while the dark reality of their world is slowly revealed. It raises provocative questions about all of our responsibility, when facing an authoritarian government — even if it is a democracy. We’re really excited to be producing this radio drama with Wally Shawn. There are some really great actors in the play, including Wally: Matthew Broderick, Larry Pine, Jill Eikenberry, and Annapurna Sriram, from the show “Billions.” Make sure to look for it next Wednesday, April 18th, on the Intercepted feed.
I’m joined now by Wally Shawn. Wally, welcome to Intercepted.
WS: Great to be here.
JS: We are very, very excited to be sharing the radio drama of your recent play, which is called “Evening at The Talk House.” I think it would be really helpful for you to explain the world that you created with this play, and what people will need to understand before listening to it.
WS: It is a made-up world, if you want to look at it that way, a dream, but a dream that is dreamed by a guy who’s living in our world. And the ingredients for all of our dreams are in our own lives. It takes place in a club where people who work in theatre used to gather, ten years or twenty years in the past, and the club still exists, even though, in this world, theater is basically gone. But somebody has the idea to have a reunion of all the people or several of the people who worked on a particular play ten years earlier.
Matthew Broderick as Robert: When I asked Ted where he thought we should hold our great anniversary celebration, he replied:
John Epperson as Ted: “Why, the Talk House, of course!”
MB as Robert: The Talk House, my god, the Talk House, that almost legendary, wonderfully quiet and gentile club.
WS: And so it’s a play about a reunion, and during the ten years since that play opened, everybody has gone on to a different life. Some people have gone up in the world and become quite successful and powerful in the new regime that apparently is running the country, and other people have declined and are doing much worse than they were ten years before.
JS: What I think is sort of one of the most powerful aspects of this, is it could be any of us having a reunion, any of us getting together with old friends the way you do, and some of them you’ve kept in touch with and others you don’t know what’s been going on in their lives, and without giving away anything vital, you somehow have managed to capture several of the major issues facing our society today in this play, the me-too movement and the harassment of women by more powerful men that they work with or work alongside, targeted killing also, what was going through your mind as you started to write this play and contemplate the issues that are tackled in it?
WS: You know, we Americans are in a way innocent and sweet creatures, but we somehow have the capacity, without being very conscious of it, to become violent killers. I think of myself as a pretty innocent person. All I do is put on little plays, or I act in rather innocent TV shows, but, you know, when I pay my taxes those dollars go directly to the Saudis who are committing massacres in Yemen. I’m paying for it. And I’m benefiting from it in the sense that I live a pleasant life in a country that is defended, let’s say, by a very brutal machine.
So the play reflects this reality that we Americans don’t see violence, and we don’t even see the ugly side of ourselves. We just sort of pay for it.
JS: Some of the policies that you’re referring to there, and some of this kind of culture of being detached from what our tax dollars are used for, the politicians that we may have voted for, what they enable when they get to Washington, you take it to a degree that may seem to the listener to be quite absurd. But in our society, we have automated the act of killing each other around the world — albeit we’re maybe one step removed from it because we’re not actually firing the missiles from the drones or controlling the joystick over them. But in a way, we’re all just as attached to someone who does the actual killing themselves on a moral level.
WS: We’re the beneficiaries of these things. So, the play is about nice people, sort of likable people, but, you know, how likeable can they be as things enable you to see some of the other sides to them. And, of course, the personal lives of the people are reflective of their conformity and their fearfulness and their coldness, basically. And the people who are doing very well in this world, we get to see a little bit about their personal life, and that can be disturbing.
JS: I wanted you to talk about Matthew Broderick’s character, Robert, and, you know, really is the figure that introduces the play to the viewer, or, in this case, the listener. Maybe you could explain who Robert is and what he represents in this society.
WS: Well the play that they’re celebrating was not very well liked.
WS (as Dick): Robert’s plays always took place in a sort of imaginary medieval world with noble knights and fair ladies and all that sort of thing. And eventually, he wrote a play with the rather odd title “Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars.” He was sure it was the best play he had written, but it didn’t do well at all, and that was the last play that Robert wrote.
WS: He wrote the play and it sort of significant that he’s a writer, and what kind of a writer was he? He was celebrating heroic values, I suppose, in his youth.
MB (as Robert): And, sure, part of the pleasure I took from watching those figures was that their very manner, their bearing, so often reflected certain extremely noble, but, at the same time, perennially threatened ideals that I greatly admired then and still do: self-sacrifice, first of all, I suppose; courage, or heroism on a field of battle, if that was the venue; loyalty, the instantaneous repeated decision to choose suffering in preference to dishonor; the power and magnificence of the body when inspired into action.
WS: And heroic values are things that I myself sort of admire. I admire courage when people will risk their lives for what they believe in. But on the other hand, these heroic values are, if given a tiny twist, are fascistic: the love of force, violence, the essence of fascism and manliness, which is a terrifying idea, and he wrote plays celebrating those types of values — which, on the one hand, you could see as agreeable Robin Hood-type of values, or on the other hand you could see them as terrifying, Mussolini-type values.
Well, as he’s become more powerful, his own cowardice I suppose may have come to the fore. He doesn’t want to risk his own position, as, you know, we don’t — as we, if we rise up to a higher level, we have more to lose. People who rise up become addicted to their power and their comforts, so we see in the play, the guy doesn’t want to risk what he has —
JS: And then you have this mysterious character, played by yourself, who is Dick, and clearly everyone sort of is looking down on Dick, they sort of are implying that he’s an alcoholic, and a kind of flop, a guy who was a one-hit in his life. Who is Dick, the character that you both wrote and play?
WS: Well Dick was not invited, and Dick wasn’t in the play. Dick tried out for the play but was rejected. But he’s allowed to hang out in this club.
WS (as Dick): As fate would have it, I myself was rather often to be seen at the Talk House around that time, and indeed, I happened to be there on the very night that the 10th anniversary of Robert’s opening was going to be celebrated. I was having a few drinks there, during the late afternoon, and eventually, I fell asleep in a large armchair.
WS: And a lot of the play is about how a group coheres, and the principle of conformity. I mean it’s a play really about a group more than it is a play about individuals.
Michael Tucker as Bill: I just can’t stand that program of murdering. It gets bigger every year. I mean, I think it’s awful, and I don’t know why —
Larry Pine as Tom: Well, well, to some extent I think they got into all that because they found it attracted an awful lot of voters. I’m — I mean, that’s all very popular in the rural areas.
MT as Bill: Oh, I’m sure it is, but you can’t just snuff out this enormous number of lives because people in the rural areas find it, because they find it somehow —
Claudia Shear as Annette: Well, it isn’t really an enormous number of lies.
MT as Bill: What?
CS as Annette: Well, it isn’t an enormous number of lives.
MT as Bill: It isn’t?
WS: It’s a kind of sociological study, as well as a psychological one and Dick is kind of the outcast and there are very unmistakable signs that he is not popular with the powers that be.
JS: You know, I remember the night after I saw your play in New York, I was going home and I passed all of these storefronts of H&M, and the Gap, and Banana Republic and all of them as I was walking down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to go to the train, and thinking like, in this world with all these disposable clothes that we now have, where clothes are only intended to last for a year or so, and you keep changing them for new ones, and they’re all made in sweatshops around the world. And I sort of wonder: What would our lives be like if at the place where you’re looking through the rack at the shirts, trying to find your size, if there was just like a little video kiosk that showed footage of the children that make the garments on that, and it’s showing the conditions that they work in or the wages that they’re paid for it, or if we go to the gas station, if we’re shown footage of the various wars that are fought in the name of natural resources.
Do you think it would have an impact at all on our consumerism if we were brought face to face with the impact of our consumption? Because it’s a theme in this play, is like: OK, we all walk around as though we have nothing to do with our nation’s wars or other things. But we really do. And part of the point of this play that I think is so powerful is to strip that away and say, you know, how absurd is it really?
WS: Well this is Marx’s concept of the fetishism of commodities. Well, it’s a huge debate that people have — more optimistic or idealistic people say if people knew what was going on, they’d be outraged and it would stop. Doesn’t seem to be true to me. I mean certainly, the most obvious and almost overused example is Abu Ghraib photos coming out, and basically Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney and those people saying: Well, yes we do torture people. The period of outrage was brief and then it was replaced — incorporated — into the understanding that we had of, you know, what we Americans do.
I mean Obama, rather peculiarly, said: “That’s not who we are.” It apparently was who we were. And most Americans assimilated that, it seems.
And our country is very far-gone. It’s very decadent. It’s gone to a very extreme level, and Trump is an archetype of total selfishness — I mean he openly shows a contempt or complete lack of interest in the suffering of others. I mean, he openly says: We don’t want any Syrian refugees because I think that some of them might be terrorists. So we won’t even take in any of these people, who are living in agony! Who are desperate.
People did vote for someone who openly is not compassionate and — well, he personally, said he thought torture was a good thing and he would eagerly bring it back.
JS: And kill the families of people that they suspect of being terrorists, too.
WS: So, you know, I just think our society is pretty far-gone.
JS: Well, I think that all of these are issues that in one way or another are touched upon in “Evening at the Talk House.” I think it’s going to be really provocative, and I’m really looking forward to what all of our listeners and others think of this experiment you and I are embarking on.
WS: I can’t wait.
JS: Wally Shawn, thank you so much for talking with us.
WS: It was a pleasure.
JS: Wallace Shawn is the writer and star of the new radio drama “Evening at the Talk House.” It was produced by Intercepted.
If you’re a sustaining member of Intercepted, you’re going to be getting a private link today to listen to the play. You can also ask Wally questions in a live video Q&A that I’m doing with him this Thursday, April 12, at 7 PM EST. Info about that Q&A is going to be sent to our sustaining members as well.
If you are not yet a sustaining member, you can become one by going to theintercept.com/join. And, if you’re not in a position to contribute financially, have no fear: Next Wednesday we will be sharing “Evening at the Talk House” with all of our subscribers.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. Next week, in the Intercepted feed, is going to be the radio drama in three parts, “Evening at the Talk House.” We will not have a regular Intercepted next week, but we will be back on Wednesday, April 25th.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro, and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Emily Kennedy does our transcripts. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Senator Ted Cruz: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Zuckerberg, welcome, thank you for being here. Mr. Zuckerberg, does Facebook consider itself a neutral public forum?
Mason Ramsey: (Singing) Lord, I don’t know what I’ll do —
Senator Ted Cruz: Let me ask the question again: Does Facebook consider itself to be a neutral public forum? And representatives of your company have given conflicting answers on this.
MR: — and sigh, oh Lord —
Senator Ted Cruz: It is just a simple question.
MR: — well Lord, I thought I would cry —
Senator Ted Cruz: Do you consider yourself a neutral public forum, or are you engaged in political speech, which is your right under the First Amendment?
MR: — daddy, such a beautiful dream. —
Senator Ted Cruz: Mr. Zuckerberg, I will say there are Americans who I think are deeply concerned that Facebook —
MR: — Well I’m nobody’s sugar daddy and I’m lonesome —
Senator Ted Cruz: — Thank you.
Senator John Thune: Thank you Senator Cruz. You want to break now? Or you want to keep going?