The toxic dumpster fire that is the Trump presidency rages on, and the president is as unhinged as he has ever been. This week on Intercepted: Donald Trump’s attacks on Joe Biden over his son’s lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian gas company highlight major contradictions in how elite politicians in the U.S. view corruption and accountability. Adam Serwer of The Atlantic discusses the impeachment inquiry, the cruelty of the Trump presidency and the state of play in Washington, D.C. As Turkey continues its brutal incursion into parts of Syria, U.S. politicians accuse Trump of “betraying” the Kurds. Jeremy Scahill and Kamran Matin of Sussex University discuss the long history of U.S. support for despotic regimes as they’ve waged genocidal campaigns against Kurdish people. Author Fatima Bhutto has two new books out, a novel “The Runaways” and “New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop.” Bhutto discusses these books, the role of the CIA in Hollywood, and the evolving story of Pakistan in the post-9/11 world.
Tony Perkins: There’s not another administration that has fought harder for a culture of life and been a better friend to values voters all across America. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my friend, our friend the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.
TP: And I’ve asked the president if we can pray for him tonight. And I’m going to ask Andrew to pray for President Trump.
Max von Sydow [as Father Merrin]: By this sign of the holy cross, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the father and the holy spirit.
DJT: Impeachment. Look —
DJT: I never thought I’d see or hear that word.
MS: It’s the power!
DJT: I can’t even believe it. Impeachment.
MS: It’s the power of Christ that compels you.
DJT: Impeachment. Emoluments.
MS: The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!
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 103 of Intercepted.
DJT: And they know, they can’t win on Election Day so they’re pursuing an illegal invalid and unconstitutional bullshit impeachment.
JS: The toxic dumpster fire that is the Trump presidency rages on and the president is as unhinged as he has ever been.
DJT: And if given the chance, they would use every instrument of government power including the IRS to try to shut you down. They are using the IRS against me.
JS: Coming up on the show, we’re going to take a deep dive into the history of the Kurdish struggles for liberation, the treatment of the Kurds at the hands of the U.S. government, and other states; and what is happening right now on the ground in Syria with Turkey invading and that invasion being met with what appears to be an alliance between Kurdish forces in Syria and the government of Bashar al Assad.
But first, the Congressional impeachment inquiry is moving forward and this week marks the deadline for a bunch of document requests made to the White House and the administration involving a whole slew of characters, from Mike Pence to Rudy Giuliani and beyond. We now have this wildcard of Dick Cheney’s protege John Bolton saying some of the stuff going down was even too much for even his terrible immoral self.
CNN: A hand grenade that threatens to blow up everybody, that is the way that former National Security Adviser John Bolton referred to Rudy Giuliani and his meddling with Ukraine.
JS: At the same time, Trump and his sons and surrogates are hammering away on former Vice President Joe Biden, portraying him as the epitome of nepotism and corruption. And they have zeroed in on Biden’s son Hunter and the fact that he served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company, raking in $50,000 a month at the very time that his father was the vice president and spearheading the Obama administration’s policy on Ukraine.
Joe Biden: It’s not a conflict of interest. There’s been no indication of any conflict of interest from Ukraine or anywhere else. Period.
JB: I’m not going to respond to that.
JS: Now, we should be clear that Donald Trump is hardly the proper messenger to be railing against corruption well, of any kind, especially involving sons cashing in on their daddy’s position in the White House. But there is a rather important contrast that this situation offers all of us. This battle between Trump and Biden highlights two of the major categories of corruption in politics in this country. There is the garden variety form of crooked, mafia type criminality that permeates the Trump administration, family, and organization. It’s always been there but now we are seeing it on mega-steroids being orchestrated from the Oval office. And then there is the old-fashioned American way of political corruption and nepotism that is always excused and permitted. Anyone with even a basic level of common sense can conclude that Hunter Biden cashed in on his dad’s political office. It’s just as clear as could be. And Hunter Biden did himself no favors in his recent appearance on ABC News.
Amy Robach: If your last name wasn’t Biden do you think you would’ve been asked to be on the board of Burisma?
Hunter Biden: I don’t know. I don’t know, probably not. I don’t think that there’s a lot of things that would’ve happened in my life if my last name wasn’t Biden.
JS: Hunter Biden is a symbol of the legalized, normalized form of corruption in this country. It may well be that he technically committed no crime and his dad committed no crime. But this situation is born of the exact same system that allows large corporations, Wall Street power brokers, and wealthy individuals to pour money into the campaigns of politicians — politicians like Joe Biden. It’s the system that has sustained the Clinton dynasty, the Bush family and that fuels many, many Democrats and Republicans in Washington.
And, by the way, let’s not pretend that Trump is not also playing that game. He definitely is. But he’s added to the mix this other form of corruption, which strikes most normal people as deeply offensive. This kind of down in the mud form of widely understood criminal behavior — and brazen, open corruption — combined with the flouting of any sense of law or accountability. It’s interesting how much official, legalized corruption people will tolerate in this country while simultaneously expressing shock at Trump’s abuse of power through politically unacceptable actions.
Hillary Clinton: To have a government that is now engaged in behavior that puts our national security at risk in order to further the president’s personal and political interests, it is tragic.
JS: No Trumps or Bidens or Clintons or Bushs have any credibility to publicly rail against corruption. They are the system. Now, don’t get me wrong, Trump is different, no doubt. His form of corruption and abuse of power is, at times, like a Walmart version of the Corleone family took power in Washington.
Al Pacino [as Michael Corleone]: In the hopes of clearing my family name, and in the sincere desire to give my children the fair share of the American way of life, without a blemish on their name and background, I have appeared before this committee and given it all the cooperation in my power. I consider it a great dishonor to me personally to have to deny that I am a criminal.
JS: Let’s be honest here. All of these professional politicians that I’ve mentioned, Democrats and Republicans, they’re products and exploiters of the toxic rot that emanates from the American political system. Throughout history, political power in this country has consistently been achieved through corruption, much of it legalized or legitimized by the very beneficiaries of the system once they make it to Washington. That doesn’t make it OK or acceptable. It’s just that Trump takes pride in his corruption. He weaponizes the very justifiable attacks on him for being corrupt and he mixes it together with racism, xenophobia, sexism, and every possible form of vileness.
DJT: Democrats are now the party of high taxes, high crime, open borders, late-term abortion, socialism, and blatant corruption.
JS: Now, at the same time, it is sickening to watch Democrats who are central players in legalized bribery, immoral nepotism, normalized corporate takeovers of large parts of the mechanism of the democratic process in this country, act like Trump is some grand anomaly. If anything, Trump is a disturbing reflection of a large part of what the politics of this country are all about. He is a bloated, garish, extreme manifestation of the rot within the U.S. political system.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of all of this is the grotesque rehabilitation of George W. Bush. It’s perfectly normal for Michelle Obama to be hugging him and playing little breath mint games with him at funerals.
Michelle Obama: He had the presence of mind and the sense of humor to bring me a mint and he made it a point to give me that mint right then and there. And that’s the beauty of George Bush.
JS: It’s OK for Ellen DeGeneres to be yucking it up with George Bush at a football game.
Ellen DeGeneres: Here’s the thing, I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different.
JS: Or for Nancy Pelosi to fondly wish that Bush was back in power.
Nancy Pelosi: So sorry, President Bush. I’d never thought I’d pray for the day that you were president again.
JS: Sick. Sick. Sick. You want to talk about a criminal enterprise running the White House? Let’s talk about Bush and Cheney. Mass murderers. Torturers. War criminals. Financial criminals. The fact that Bush is walking around in public, hanging out with TV celebrities should be viewed with a deep sense of shame and met with visible, audible scorn and condemnation.
I find Trump abhorrent and despicable. But even in his horridness, he has not yet surpassed the horrifying record of the Bush-Cheney regime. And it is deeply revealing to contrast the outrage at the crimes of Trump with the warm embrace of George W. Bush by the elites in this country. It tells you a lot about the actual principles on which this nation operates.
The Democrats should aggressively investigate Trump. But if the game here is to put some of the rotten eggs of America onto the Trump ship, hope that it sinks and then pat themselves on the back for wiping out this nightmare, then we’re not going to get anywhere.
Until major corporations and the ultra wealthy have their undemocratic stranglehold over the electoral system in this country ripped from them, nothing major will fundamentally change. We should also remember that while simultaneously telling us that Trump is the worst president in history and a threat to democracy itself, many elite Democrats vote to give Trump extreme executive power, including over mass surveillance systems. We have a lot to sift through at this moment in history and it is utterly vital that we not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking the fight ends with Trump’s departure. That means looking at this system. It means looking at the legalized corruption at the heart of the U.S. political system. This is part of why it is so important that voices like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have emerged. In many ways, they are the anomalies right now, not Trump.
But even Warren and Sanders won’t go so far as to entertain prosecuting the imperial crimes committed by presidents and their cohort as part of their official duties, specifically the war crimes that are grossly explained away by phrases like “national security” or “collateral damage.” What I believe is that Trump should ultimately be prosecuted criminally. But what message does it send if Trump somehow goes down for his criminality and corruption, while people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney walk around as free men after committing systematic, murderous imperial crimes? Or Henry Kissinger? No Democrats want to touch that one and we all should be asking why.
Joining me now is the award-winning journalist Adam Serwer, a staff writer for The Atlantic magazine. For the past several years, he has written in-depth pieces examining the historical context of Trump’s rise to power. Adam, welcome to Intercepted.
Adam Serwer: Thanks for having me.
JS: I want to begin with a development that I don’t think many of us saw coming and that is that John Bolton reportedly found something that he himself found offensive within Trumpworld and it wasn’t like Trump’s reluctance to bomb someone. It had to do with what he described as Mick Mulvaney and Rudy Giuliani potentially committing a crime. What is your reaction to the narrative that we’ve now heard about even John Bolton saying “This is too much for me”?
AS: I think this is a very important instinct for bureaucrats to have which is to know when you need to start covering your ass. And I think that that’s what he was doing. I’m reluctant to give Bolton a tremendous amount of credit for perhaps leaking derogatory information about an administration that he was fired from only after he was fired. And I suspect that this information is coming out now centering around him is not coming from him necessarily. I think it’s highly likely that someone around him wants to box him into forcing him to go public with his criticisms and knowledge of Trump that is responsible for Bolton emerging as this sort of, “voice of reason” to people who don’t like Trump, but to Trumpland and to the Republican Party, soon he’s going to be another traitor that needs to be silenced.
JS: Right. I mean, let’s remember John Bolton was trained by the dark king himself, Dick Cheney, and you can’t really portray John Bolton as a deep state, angry Democrat that’s going after Trump.
AS: This is something that I think I want people to understand about the “deep state” — the deep state is not, like in reality, is not this like shadowy thing that controls the U.S. government. What it is, is the kind of institutionalists like John Bolton, who are willing to basically let the president get away with whatever the president wants to do as long as it’s in pursuit of some policy goal. And you see this from administration to administration, right? You see it in the Bush administration with the torture memos. You see it in the Obama administration with the justifications for going to war without Congress. And in this case, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable only because it’s not actually tied to a policy goal. It’s just the president trying to look out for himself and make sure he gains personally as opposed to whatever policy idea that president is pursuing. The deep state is this corrupted institutional process where people give the president whatever they want, as long as it’s reasonably related to some policy issue, not, you know, this sort of shadowy conspiracy thing that I don’t think actually exists.
JS: Let’s talk about Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats and their response, not just in recent weeks to this situation with Ukraine, but in general over these two and a half years. As you and I both know, Nancy Pelosi, at the height of some of the worst crimes and abuses of the Bush-Cheney era, was telling the public impeachment is off the table.
NP: I saw it as my responsibility to try to bring a much divided country together to the extent that we could. I thought that impeachment would be divisive for the country … If somebody had a crime that the president had committed, that would be a different story.
NP: And you can’t do that if you’re trying to impeach the president at the same time unless you have the goods that this president committed a crime.
JS: But now the impeachment inquiry train is on the tracks and running. What is your read on how we got to this point and the battles within the Democratic party over whether to initiate an impeachment inquiry against Trump?
AS: The actual reason why impeachment had to go through this time and not when Bush was doing arguably worse things is that what Trump did with Ukraine is an attack on the political process, right? You can’t actually have free and fair elections if the person in office is using their authority to criminalize or prosecute their political rivals, simply because they are their political rivals. And this is clearly sort of what Trump was doing. He was withholding aid from Ukraine in order to compel that country’s government to sort of either blatantly open an inquiry into Hunter Biden and his time at Burisma or open an inquiry just into Burisma so that Trump could then say, “Oh, look, the Biden family is corrupt.” And despite the fact that that scheme was exposed, you still now have like people at Trump rallies screaming “Lock him up.”
[Crowd chanting “Lock him up.”]
AS: I think for Pelosi, it goes beyond whether something is good or bad, but Democrats simply can’t win elections if everybody they’re going to put up is going to suddenly become a criminal who needs to be put in jail.
JS: Rudy Giuliani, who is this charlatan consigliere now for Trump, you know if 9/11 hadn’t happened, the dominant read on Giuliani would have been his record in the city of New York where it was an overtly racist, anti-poor, anti-worker, so-called tough on crime but locking a lot of people up and criminalizing people’s existence — 9/11 he sort of then became America’s mayor. And now with this turn in Trumpworld, it seems like you know Giuliani — who always brags that he went after the mob in New York is basically acting like a dime store Roy Cohn.
Martha MacCallum: Why are you the president’s personal attorney? What is your personal, what’s your mission?
Rudy Giuliani: To disrupt the world. My mission is to defend my client in the best traditions of the legal profession —
MM: So it’s in the interest of your client to find out what happened with Joe Biden and Burisma, not the country?
RG: That’s a that’s a mischaracterization, Martha. It’s in the best interest of my client to unravel the corruption in the Ukraine.
JS: And it does seem like Giuliani could potentially face criminal prosecution for what he’s been doing during this era. What’s your read on Giuliani and what he’s going to be facing in the weeks [and] months ahead?
AS: Giuliani has kind of always been a lawless goon. I think that there was like a weird sentimentality around his time in New York that was not shared by a lot of black and Hispanic New Yorkers but that was shared by a lot of people outside of New York City who didn’t have to deal with him directly. With this stuff, I think it’s clear that a lot of people around Trump are opportunists who want to cash in on his being president. And he doesn’t mind that because he is also an opportunist who wants to cash in on his being president. And I think that Giuliani just felt like well, “If the president’s on my side, there’s no way I’m going to get in any trouble because Barr is going to do whatever Trump wants him to do.”
People are talking about the possibility that Giuliani might get indicted because of his involvement with the almost absurdly named “Fraud Guarantee” in their attempts to give the Republicans illegal political donations. I mean, it’s sort of an insane situation. But if you recall the person that Rudy actually was and not the person that he was sentimentalized into being after 9/11, which is a guy who pretty much feels like he can do whatever he wants and get away with it, then it’s not really all that difficult to see how he finds himself here.
Reporter: Are you concerned that Rudy Giuliani will be indicted in all this?
DJT: Well, I hope not again. I don’t know how he knows these people.
Reporter: They’re his clients.
Reporter: They’re his clients.
DJT: OK, well, then they’re clients. I mean, you know, he’s got a lot of clients.
JS: This week, of course, is the deadline for a bunch of the responses to document requests that have come from Congress to Rudy Giuliani, Mike Pence, Mick Mulvaney and the Trump White House has basically said, we’re not going to cooperate with any of this. How much of this flagrant disregard for that process, which is constitutional and legal, can be attributed to the ideology that you’ve written about that these guys really believe they have, as you put it, “a legitimate claim to permanent political hegemony,” and therefore the laws don’t apply to them?
AS: When you go back to what you said earlier about authoritarian regimes always running against corruption. I mean, that has a very specific history here in the United States. And when you look back to reconstruction after the Civil War, the white majority governments that took power from the reconstruction governments often violently, in some cases more blatantly, violently than others. In some cases, it was simply repressing the vote, in other cases it was actually overthrowing the government. These guys were all saying that they were crusading against corruption. They were saying that the reconstruction governments were taking taxpayer money and stealing it and spending it on things they shouldn’t have been spending it on. And this was just a necessary corrective to fatally corrupt governments. But that in itself was also not a justification for authoritarian rule.
Often those things go hand in hand, that is a false anti-corruption crusade that justifies the kind of ethnic hegemony is something that in the past in American history has functioned very well to extinguish democracy as we understand how it should work. Here it is specifically worked with the ideology of white supremacy and so it’s not a coincidence that Trump is both extremely corrupt and rails against corruption and pairs that with his kind of white populism because that’s how he makes himself look incorruptible to his followers. It is precisely that commitment to his group regardless of all other principles that makes people feel as though he is incorruptible even though he is fundamentally corrupt in the most basic sense.
DJT: The Democrats’ brazen attempt to overthrow our government will produce a backlash at the ballot box, the likes of which they have never, ever seen before in the history of this country.
JS: You wrote what I think was one of the most insightful, brilliant, and accurate columns describing this moment that we’re in with Trump in office. And the piece that I encourage everyone to read if you haven’t already, for The Atlantic was called “The Cruelty is the Point: President Trump and his Supporters Find Community by Rejoicing in the Suffering of Those They Hate and Fear,” and I’m going to read an excerpt from it. But the point that I want to talk about here, Adam, is as this impeachment inquiry goes forward, and if Trump’s presidency is truly in danger from this process, I want to talk to you about how you think his base of support is going to respond to that.
But first, I just want to share with people a brief section of this piece that you wrote from “The Cruelty is the Point” — “Trump’s only true skill is the con. His only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight white Christian men, and his only real authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty and the delight it brings them that binds his most ardent supporters to him in shared scorn for those they hate and fear, immigrants, black voters, feminists and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good. It makes them feel proud. It makes them feel happy. It makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.” Adam, what will the consequences be, you’re describing this mentality if this does truly endanger Trump’s presidency?
AS: This relationship that Trump has with his followers, I mean, you can see it every time he does a rally. I mean, last time he was making orgasm noises.
DJT: I love you, Peter. I love you too, Lisa. Lisa, Lisa. Oh, God, I love you, Lisa.
AS: His supporters feel and they feel this way in no small part because Trump and Fox News make them feel this way that somehow Trump losing would be this kind of existential thing that would destroy their lives as they know it. And that justifies both whatever Trump might do to protect himself and by extension, that means them, even though it’s really just himself. I don’t know how they would react to a loss. I don’t know how they would react to a resignation. I don’t know how they would react to him being removed. But I think that they are probably, as Trump wants them to feel, feel as though this impeachment is a personal attack on them and not a sort of necessary check on what is an obvious and egregious abuse of power.
JS: It seems like there’s an endless string of Democrats who are trying to run to unseat Donald Trump and you have Joe Biden, the former vice president, and you have Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I want to get your read on all three of them and I want to start with Joe Biden. You know, I know there’s a lot of talk about his mental stamina and stability. But it does seem pretty clear like, Biden should not be in this race. He doesn’t seem up for it. He seems like he’s from a totally different era. And I watch him and have concerns that he just isn’t all there right now. But first talk about the Biden candidacy and whether or not you think he should even be staying in this race.
AS: When you look at the way that Trump and the Republican Party do politics now, it is almost just an endless parade of attempts to stoke fear and anger on the part of their base, to make them feel threatened by liberals so that, you know, they feel like they have to crush them to survive. A lot of the reason for Biden’s support is that people justifiably feel as though he is less threatening of a figure, and less likely to be caricatured it in that way. Bernie and Warren, their supporters on the internet feel as though they’re in direct competition for each other’s votes, which I think is true to a certain extent, but I think that, as far as policy is concerned, they’re actually pretty similar. And I think the left wing of the party would probably be pretty pleased with either one of them becoming president, if that were possible.
The thing that Democrats should be concerned about is that the story about Warren’s Native American background which has been exaggerated, people sort of tried to imply that that’s how she got her job at Harvard, but that’s not actually true. That narrative plays very well into a story that Trump likes to tell about hard working white people having the things that belong to them being taken from them by rich white liberals and given to people of color who do not deserve them. If she becomes the nominee, when you look at the way the emails thing was handled last time, I think it’s probably likely that something like that is going to become a story with Warren. I think with Sanders, his individual policies are very popular. But the word socialism for whatever reason is not popular in the United States, even though Americans absolutely love their socialism when they get it.
Honestly, I have no idea how this primary is going to turn out and whether or not the person who emerges from that primary is actually going to be capable of beating Trump and I’m not sure that the polls that are coming out right now have much predictive value as to what that result is going to be.
JS: We’re speaking to you in San Antonio, Texas right now. And in Fort Worth, Texas, the police officer who Saturday shot Atatiana Tay Jefferson through her bedroom window has been charged with murder.
Newscaster: Fort Worth police say Aaron Dean has been jailed and is being held on a $200,000 bond. Twenty-eight-year-old Atatiana Jefferson was watching her young nephew Saturday when a neighbor noticed her door was open and called police. Bodycam footage shows officers circling the home armed with guns and flashlights. One of them approached an open window and fired one fatal shot.
Police: Put your hands up! Show me your hands up!
JS: It seems like we hear these types of stories all the time in this country. But your reaction to this latest shooting, how it’s been covered in the media and the fact that the officer is now being charged with murder.
AS: In this case and the previous case with Amber Guyger where she also shot Botham Jean in his own home, these are both cases of police officers not identifying themselves, pulling out their weapons, and fatally killing people within their own homes. One of the reasons for these shootings is actually structural, which is that police so rarely pay a price for abusing their authority in this way that they don’t think to be as careful as they should be because they think they’re going to be fine. And in this case, I mean, if you even think about the logistics of the situation, it’s so insane. Have you ever been inside a house when someone shines a light from outside the house? You can’t see anything. He didn’t identify himself. He just pulled out his gun and shot her. I mean, of course, she had no idea what was going on.
I will say something else. The Guyger case shows that juries are increasingly willing to hold police officers accountable when they behave recklessly like this in a way that takes someone’s life. Because of these stories, because of all the videos, because of the conversation around it, people are increasingly willing to acknowledge that sometimes the people that are supposed to protect us abuse their authority in ways that take people’s lives for no good reason.
JS: A piece that you wrote back in 2017 called “The Nationalist’s Delusion” which also you wrote for The Atlantic, it relates to what you were just talking about. I want to ask you to expand on this but Adam Serwer writes: “What Trump supporters referred to as political correctness is largely the result of marginalized communities gaining sufficient political power to project their prerogatives on to society at large. What a society finds offensive is not a function of fact or truth but of power. It’s why unpunished murders of black Americans by agents of the state draw less outrage than black football players kneeling for the national anthem in protest against them. It’s no coincidence that Trump himself frequently uses the term to belittle what he sees as unnecessary restrictions on state force.” Expand on what you’re talking about there.
AS: I think Trump very much understands political correctness as an unwilling to be racist towards groups who deserve to be discriminated against by the state. And I think that his supporters understand that as well. So when people talk about the NFL, or the NBA being too woke or politically correct, what they’re really saying is that these people who are subject to a form of state discrimination or who are protesting on behalf of people who are subject to a form of state discrimination which is sometimes fatal, should actually just shut up and not say anything. You know, that’s not always what it means. Sometimes it just means an inability to keep up with the changing social mores of the day, but the way that Trump uses it, it is specifically related to discriminatory violence. And it’s not a coincidence that many of his supporters use it the same way.
JS: You know, Trump is not necessarily some grand anomaly in American history, but a kind of reflection of some of the worst aspects of the history of this country. And I think if we, you know, if we start from the premise, you know, Trump says, “Make America great again,” you could make a very serious moral and political and economic argument that America never was great, that it was a country born of genocide, built through kidnapping people and forcing them into slavery, that has consistently tried to deny the rights of some of its most vulnerable people, that runs massive prison camps, that has agents of the state murdering people with impunity throughout its history, and on and on and on, not to even talk about all of the wars and bombings. And it does seem to me in a way, that there is this kind of attempt from the elite political class to put all of the bad baggage onto the Trump ship in hopes of sinking it when in reality — and this is what I want to get your reaction to — as I see it, Trump is sort of a mirror that American imperialism has to look into and say this is really who we have been at our core.
AS: What Trump is a part of us. It’s always been a part of us. It’s been a part of us since the beginning of this country. And it’s not something that came out of nowhere. It’s not an anomaly, as you said. It is a projection of our worst impulses. But it’s not just that. So, what I tell people is Americanism is the disease, but it’s also the cure. I mean, America is all those things you said. But it’s also a place where people have used this ideal of all people being created equal to build a better country. It’s that same idea that Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King and Ida Wells, and so many other people have latched on to create a new idea of freedom for everyone and not just for the people that it was originally restricted to. I mean, yes, Trump is a part of a continuum in American history. He is a manifestation of things that are American in origin. He’s not Putin’s fault. But it’s also the case that there are things about America that are very much worth rescuing and defending and those are the things that have in the past protected us from the ideas and principles that Trump represents or allowed people who were victims or targets of the ideas that Trump represents to create a more perfect union and I think that that part of it also shouldn’t be ignored.
JS: Adam Serwer, thanks so much for joining us and thanks for all the great work you’ve done particularly since Trump became president.
AS: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
JS: Adam Serwer is a staff writer for The Atlantic. Make sure to check out his work at TheAtlantic.com. He’s also on Twitter @AdamSerwer.
JS: In a series of rapid fire changes over the last week, the United States military is now reportedly out of Northeastern Syria. In the city of Manbij, Russian troops have moved in after Kurdish forces in Syria struck a deal with the Assad government on Monday. This followed what has become the new norm in announcing U.S. policy — Donald Trump’s Twitter feed — where the president indicated that he was going to pull U.S. forces out of Syria and let others “figure the situation out.” Reports emerged that Turkey understood Trump to have given it a green light to invade part of Syria.
These reports then sparked bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill, drawing the particular ire of one of Trump’s most loyal sycophants Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Lindsey Graham: I think it’s the worst decision of his presidency. It can be corrected. I hope it will and it’s going to affect our national security and his presidency if he allows it to continue.
JS: On Twitter, Trump laid down some of the most asinine rebuttals possible, including claiming that no one knows more about the Kurds than Donald Trump. And then there was this gem, and I’m quoting: “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told PBS that Trump had not given the OK for Turkey to move in.
Mike Pompeo: The United States didn’t give Turkey a green light.
JS: Despite what must have felt like whiplash to the Turkish government, President Erdogan moved forward with what immediately became a brutal invasion operation. The situation on the ground predictably deteriorated. There were reports that Turkey fired deliberately on known U.S. military positions. Captured ISIS fighters escaped amid the chaos, and hundreds of civilians have been reported dead. Reports of mass atrocities and executions continue to emerge. Along a highway, Turkish-allied Syrian forces filmed themselves firing repeatedly at a body along a highway. Another video is believed to be evidence that the Syrian-Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf was pulled from her car, and shot in the head. She had been involved with negotiations with the U.S., French, and other governments.
JS: Now, the Trump administration is saying it wants a ceasefire in Syria and it has moved ramshackle to impose sanctions on Turkey. Here’s Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin.
Stephen Mnuchin: We have sanctioned three of the ministers: the minister of defense, the minister of interior, and the minister of energy. We have also sanctioned the Department of Defense and the Department of the Ministry of Energy.
JS: Set aside for a moment that in the micro sense, this is yet another case of Donald Trump saying something and then when people start analyzing the consequences of what he has said or tweeted, he claims he didn’t say it and then he moves to punish the people he said it to. I say set that aside for this reason only: just focusing on this tick-tock misses a much deeper and important history that is necessary to understand in order to fully investigate what all of this means.
You wouldn’t get this from watching much of the news coverage on Syria right now, but the horrors that we see unfolding with Turkey’s invasion are not simply the product of the insane whims of the insane man currently in power at the White House. United States policy for decades, under both Democrats and Republicans, has brought the world to this terrible moment of yet another mass slaughter, another campaign of war crimes from a U.S. ally. The belligerent response to 9/11, the CIA torture program, the black sites, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the expansion of drone strikes, the proxy wars, the destruction of Libya, the unquestioned support for Israel, the backing of monarchs and dictators and despots — all of these policies under Democrats and Republicans have created this situation in Syria.
And it’s downright despicable the way that the Kurdish people are discussed in the broader media coverage, particularly this line about how Trump has betrayed our loyal allies the Kurds. Now it is true that Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria have fought as allies alongside U.S. forces, no doubt about that. But this narrative almost never includes the context that the U.S. has repeatedly, actively supported the brutal efforts by various powers to crush the Kurds, massacre them, keep them from achieving political and human rights. In many cases throughout history, the U.S. has not been a friend to the Kurds or Kurdish struggles for freedom. In fact, the U.S. has supported some of the most brutal and heinous crimes committed against the Kurds in modern times. The U.S. supported Saddam Hussein at the height of his brutality in the 1980s when he was actively using chemical weapons against Kurdish people in northern Iraq. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was pouring military aid on Turkey as it waged a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kurds.
The truth is that the U.S. has used the Kurds throughout modern history as tools of convenience, disposable tools, foot soldiers one day, politically expedient bargaining chips the next. To simply portray this situation as something Trump just did is to somehow erase all history that preceded it, including the history of U.S. policy on Kurdish movements throughout modern history.
Joining me now is Dr. Kamran Matin. He is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex in England where he focuses on Kurdish history and political movements. He’s the author of “Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change.”
Kamran, welcome to Intercepted.
Kamran Matin: Thank you.
JS: I want to start fairly far back in history and just talk for a second about Kurds as a massive ethnic group without a homeland. Explain what, for lack of a better term, Kurdistan looked like in the era of World War I.
KM: Up to World War I, most Kurds lived under two empires, Iranian state Qajar Empire and the Ottoman Empire. So after the First World War, Ottoman Empire was on the defeated sides of the warring parties. So the territories of Ottoman Empire where most Kurds lived was divided up into three modern states of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. These new states, like most modern states became territorialized and centralized and this meant taking away whatever autonomy the Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities had. So as expected, the Kurds resisted and reacted to this withdrawal of autonomy. And that’s where you begin to have the first Kurdish national movements or national struggle for rights and recognition and so on.
JS: Talk about how some of these rebellions or liberation struggles began sprouting up. Talk about some of the key points.
KM: In what is now Turkey you had a chain of, if you like, uprisings in different parts. This was an area the Kurds called Dersim but subsequently Turkish states changed it to the Turkish name Tunceli. So in this particular region, the new Turkish Republic’s Air Force, basically bombed the Kurds, up to 35,000 people were killed. The remaining families and women and children were transferred forcibly to other parts of Turkey and the violence was so massive and enduring that finally, actually under President Erdogan it was recognized and Erdogan formally apologize.
Euronews: In a speech to members of his AK party Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the bloody campaign that left almost 14,000 people dead as among the most tragic events of our history.
KM: In more recent times in Iraq, you have had an uninterrupted Kurdish struggle for autonomy, which culminated in [the] 1980s, to what Kurds know as Anfal.
Archive: The operation, later codenamed Anfal, was first authorized by directive from Iraq’s ruling body the Revolutionary Command Council dated March 1987.
KM: Or a campaign of basically genocide, which led to the killing of up to 180,000 civilian Kurds.
Archive: The plumes of smoke are poison gas, villagers fled for their lives where they could.
KM: Destruction of 2,000 villages, and also the chemical weapons being deployed against civilians in the city of Halabja.
JS: I think it’s important to pause for a moment there and just remind people because this history still is largely ignored or goes unmentioned that, at that time in the 1980s, you had Reagan and Bush in power. And the Reagan administration, fearing the revolution in Iran lifted Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and began selling and transferring weapons, intelligence technology, helicopters and other attack vessels to Iraq. And in fact, Saddam was at the height of his brutality, including the chemical weapons attack against the Kurds of Halabja. While he was most friendly with the Reagan-Bush administration. In fact, Donald Rumsfeld traveled repeatedly as an envoy for the United States to Iraq, while Saddam’s forces were massacring Kurds.
KM: More broadly, you know, diplomacy of the United States at the time was prolonging the war between Iran and Iraq to undermine their abilities to pose any challenge because both states had the potential of challenging U.S. hegemony. And you mentioned the Reagan link to Saddam. But you also know about the so-called Iran Contra Affair where Iran was buying second-hand Israeli weapons, the proceeds of which was transferred to the Contras in Nicaragua, you know, to the counter-revolutionary. So, you know, the amount of Western weapon which went to Iraq under Saddam Hussein was just massively more than what Iran was trying to buy in the in the black market and all through this kind of back channels.
JS: While this is happening in Iraq, you also have Kurds starting to get much more mobilized and pose a much more serious threat to the Turkish regime as the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, starts to form, carry out attacks, do political organizing. Talk about what was happening in Turkey and the organization of the PKK.
KM: As you might know, in 1980, Turkish generals launched a coup, a 1980 coup. This followed the period of instability within Turkey when Turkish left was posing a challenge to the state. Out of this coup when the left was totally suppressed, it was only the Kurdish left, which somehow survived some of the leadership of what became later PKK managed to escape from Turkey into Syria and then on to Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, joining the Palestinian liberation organizations. And there they began their military training to start their arm struggle few years later in 1984.
The Dream of Kurdistan: Leaping through burning tires and a hail of gunfire, the fighters are the most extreme Kurdish group, but PKK trained for their liberation of war. Their aim is independence, the world’s largest stateless minority.
KM: Now it’s important to note that PKK went through two distinct phases in its political history. So it began as a movement which sought an independent Kurdish states which would encompass all the parts of Kurdistan — Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. So it was a pan-Kurdish movement initially. Subsequently, it modified this to an independent state in Turkey for the Kurds, but from mid-90s, PKK changed its demands and strategy moving to basically what has come to be known as democratic confederalism. The PKK and its Abdullah Öcalan developed one of the most fundamental critiques of the idea of the statehood and they believed and they still continue to say that a Kurdish state does not solve the Kurdish problem because the problem is not the absence of a Kurdish state, but the state itself. So the idea was to radically democratize existing states through this idea of democratic confederalism. So in the middle of this existential war, the Kurds in Syria managed to set up this form of agenda, egalitarian cooperative economy, form of radical democracy and so on.
JS: Turkish political figures, political scientists and others, many of them would say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on a second here. The PKK is a terrorist organization that waged terrorist attacks against Turkish forces, attacked our military, killed civilians, and were sewing mayhem and terror at the high point of their political organizing in Turkey.”
KM: So I think this is mostly propaganda. And I think one point I also wanted to mention is that interestingly, only when PKK actually turned away from the idea of establishing a Kurdish state, turning towards what I mentioned earlier, democratic confederalism, it was at that point that Turkish state actually demanded from United States and Western powers to list PKK as a terrorist organization, not before that. And that’s I think, remarkable because obviously Turkish state considered this new form of politics as more dangerous, than simply an arm struggle which was pursued before. So somehow this listing of the PKK has remained and has become the only basis on which Turkey justifies its brutal suppression of the Kurds and basically attributes any opposition it dislikes to the PKK, including the Syrian Kurds or the People’s Democratic Party in Turkey. It’s the third largest parliamentary party in the country. And yet it’s entire leadership is behind bars in prison, elected mayors from this party now, they’re removed by the state and replaced by the state-appointed mayors. So just like, you know, American war on terror discourse which allows United States to designate anyone it wants to suppress under that broad rubric, I think the Turkish state and also other regional states with Kurdish populations do exactly the same. They use this notion of terrorism to suppress legitimate political dissent.
JS: I’d be remiss not to talk about the position of the United States in the 1990s when Turkey was waging what many human rights advocates considered to be a genocidal campaign against Kurds, in general. The Clinton administration was just pouring money into the Turkish military budget, providing turkey with high tech weaponry to be used directly to slaughter Kurds. So you had the bad Kurds of Turkey from the perspective of U.S. policymakers. And then they had these so called no fly zones in Iraq to protect the “good Kurds” of northern Iraq.
Bill Clinton: I would still like to do more to help the Kurds. But frankly, if you want for the fighting to be ended, the leaders of the various factions are going to have to be willing to go back to the peace table and talk it through.
JS: But talk about that period in the ‘90s when the Clinton administration was on the one hand, pouring weapons, funding intelligence support into the Turkish states military coffers while simultaneously pretending to be the protector of Kurdish lives in Iraq.
KM: Yes, I mean, to understand stand this — this hypocrisy — obviously, we need this bigger picture. I mean, this was the early years after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet Union. And yet after the collapse of Soviet Union, Iraq — and after the first Gulf War — Iraq, while no longer having the help of Soviet Union militarily or logistically, but it was still a revisionist state, so to speak, you know, in the parlance of international relations. It was trying to revise the original order which United States had in place, and therefore, it was treated as a hostile state by the United States. On the other hand, Turkey is a founding member of NATO and a U.S. ally. So the U.S. policy towards the Kurds was entirely a function of this interstate relations they had with these two different countries. The Western powers — the United States in particular — in order to weaken Saddam Hussein’s regime supported the Kurds, and yet simultaneously across the border, they did help. They provided whatever they could to help the Turkish state to persecute and destroy Kurdish political movement there.
JS: OK, let’s talk about what we have seen over the past week or so. What is the political context of Turkey’s invasion of Syria and your understanding of the process that led to Turkey actually deciding “Yes, we can do this?”
KM: The modern Turkish state is explicitly built on the denial of the Kurdish identity and existence. And as a result, any form of Kurdish autonomy not only in Turkey or anywhere in the region, they do not accept any form of local Kurdish autonomy anywhere, and they see that as a fundamental threat to the national security of the Turkish state. But this idea of dealing with internal dissent or uprising, through forceful displacement of large numbers of people has a long history in Turkish and Ottoman history. And that’s exactly what Turkey is trying to do now. You know, seeing the Syrian Kurds as linked to the Turkish Kurds, they’re now trying to totally depopulate these border areas from the Kurds through this idea of bringing in Arab Syrian refugees, which live in Turkey, and through the bombing they make the Kurds flee, and they had close to 200,000 of them have already done and subsequently they will bring this 2.5 million or so, the Arab Syrian refugees putting in their place, and therefore they create a buffer if you like, an Arab buffer zone between the Syrian Kurds and the Turkish Kurds. So in a way Erdogan with this operation trying to if you like hit three, four birds with one stone to prevent the rise of some sort of Kurdish autonomy in Syria, to disarm and corner its opposition domestically and also to revive its economy and also its political base, regalvanize it through this anti-Kurdish war in Syria.
JS: What is the significance of how the United States handled this situation going back to before the Turks moved in, right up until now?
KM: Now, if you look at the discourse in [the] media there is basically, you get this picture that the military side in the United States are livid and unhappy with this. And yet State Department and others, basically saying, yeah, well, this is a long standing conflict, you know, they are connected to the PKK. They are basically repeating pretty much what the Turkish state says about its motives. What happened also in recent times in the Gulf with the attacks under Saudi oil installations and before that when Iran downed the American drones, the original actors and not least Erdogan are completely aware that the United States is no longer even trying to pretend that it’s going to maintain regional order in any concrete way. So I think regional states from Qatar, Saudis to Iran and Turkey, they all know that the United States is not going to militarily confront anybody really in any way. And even if the United States has any plan, it’s going to be done by proxy. So if let’s say United States still wants to undermine [the] Assad regime or have some sort of say on the post war Syria, it’s going to pursue that via Turkey as a NATO and trusted ally rather than through the Kurds.
So imagine I mean, if Turkey successfully occupies this lands it intends to Turkey will have a massive leverage on any form of political process which is going to take place in Syria in [the] coming months and years and Turkey has from the start been opposed to Assad. It provided weapon and money and arms to all sorts of Islamic jihadist groups against Assad. So, of course, it will use this new leverage in order to shape or co-shape the Syrian future in a way it wants.
And ultimately, you know, to conclude this point I think Trump is worried about elections and ultimately its main aim too is to fulfill its campaign promise about withdrawal of forces from the region. But what is really ironic is that the number of American troops which were able to deter the catastrophe, which is unfolding now in Syria, were around a hundred or so and yet, Trump in his tweets depicts this as if, you know, the United States withdrawing from Vietnam. I mean, it completely has nothing to do with the reality of the financial or military or human cost that was involved for the United States.
JS: Well, then you see who is stepping up right now and making a deal with the Kurds. It appears as though the Syrian government itself, Bashar Al Assad’s forces have now made some sort of an alliance with Kurdish forces. Now you’re going to have the Syrian army potentially in a hot conflict with Turkish forces.
KM: Indeed, a bit of background is also useful here. The Syrian Kurds, as you might know, chose what they themselves described as a third way in the Civil War. They said we are not siding with either opposition, because there are Islamist, reactionary, and conservative and so on. In recent years, they try to strike some sort of deal with Assad in terms of Assad regime recognizing some sort of autonomy, some sort of federal autonomy for the Kurds in Syria, in return for Kurds basically joining their military forces with Syrian regime against al Qaeda revenants in Idlib or elsewhere in Syria. Now, Assad regime was emboldened by the successful intervention of Russia in Iran, and therefore was pursuing if you like a maximalist program with respect to the Kurds. So it was refusing to make any concessions to the Kurds so this deal did not take place.
And on top of that Americans were pushing and encouraging and in fact, I would say even pressurizing the Kurds to not make a deal with Assad until recently. But now, of course, the Kurds in Syria are facing a real genocide taking place. And at the moment aid agencies claim that up 270,000 people have fled their homes along the Turkish border, hundreds of civilians have been killed and wounded. Within less than a week, a region, peaceful, people doing their daily life, now, it’s been turned into a war zone — women and children being killed with little medical supply. So, all the warnings which people were making about the consequences of Turkish invasion has materialized: that we have a large humanitarian disaster happening; we have the re-rise of ISIS in the region; and we have the strengthening of Russia, Syria and Iran, politically and diplomatically in the region.
JS: Dr. Kamran Matin, thank you very much for being with us.
KM: Thank you.
JS: Dr. Kamran Matin is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex in the UK.
JS: My next guest, Fatima Bhutto, has had an extraordinary life and family history. She is the granddaughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former prime minister and president of Pakistan. Forty years ago Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said, “The purpose of democracy is to bring about the flowering of society and to know the inner thoughts of the people without fear.”
In 1979, the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq imprisoned and executed the popular leader. His son, Murtaza Bhutto, Fatima’s father, was assassinated in 1996 while doing political organizing and advocating for democratic change and a socialist vision for Pakistan. In her 2010 memoir, “Songs of Blood and Sword,” Fatima Bhutto details the story behind the Bhutto dynasty that has resulted in the deaths of four of its members.
Born in Kabul, raised in Damascus and Karachi, Bhutto brings her expansive experiences to her writings, both fiction and nonfiction. She has two new books out this year, both in their own ways exploring the borderless world of the digital age. Her novel, “The Runaways” looks at why someone might join the war against the West. Meanwhile, “New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop” dives into the cultural movements emerging from outside of the Western world. Turkish’ soap operas, or dizi as they’re known, have helped make that country the second largest distributor of television shows worldwide.
Fatima Bhutto joins me now to discuss the relationship between politics and culture, soft power, and how culture has been weaponized. Fatima, welcome to Intercepted.
Fatima Bhutto: Thank you for having me.
JS: Congrats, you have two new books out this year. That’s pretty incredible. And your most recent novel, “The Runaways” explores alienation, radicalization through the lives of three characters, Anita Rose, Sunny and Monty, maybe give an overview of how these three characters become drawn into the realms of radicalism.
FB: “The Runaways” is a story about radicalization, and it’s also about what the West doesn’t understand about radicalism or the radicalized, that it doesn’t come out of religion. I think radicalization is born out of alienation. It’s born out of anger, out of humiliation, out of a ferocious and raging inequality. Essentially, each one of the characters tells one of those threads. There was a character who comes from a rich, privileged background in Karachi, who becomes radicalized. There’s another character who lives in Portsmouth in England. His father migrated from India before he was born and yet he’s lived a life of 100 humiliations and alienation. And then there is a character who really has nothing to do with the story of Islam at all, but is a victim of that inequality and of how the invisible can be left out of society. And it’s what I tried to look at because the narrative, you know, 20 years after these wars began, has always been very shallow and very singular. It’s placed the blame on a people, on a religion, but never stopped to question exactly what has been done to those people in the process of these wars.
JS: One scene that stands out from “The Runaways” is between Sunny and his cousin Oz at a Starbucks and Oz says, “‘The elites are eating up the world and at the same time they are casting you out.’ Oz placed his hand on Sunny’s chest right above his heart. “Because you and me, cuz they’ll never accept us. We’re the periphery. We’ll never be the center. We’re not like them. We come from a different culture. They don’t understand our people, our struggles.'” What’s so striking is that the ordinariness of it all and the language of disillusionment. And I’m curious how you approached writing “The Runaways.” What experiences, what observations did you draw on? Like, where did this come from?
FB: It comes from I suppose, feeling wounded myself over the last 20 years. I was a student in New York when 9/11 happened and when the Iraq invasion began. I was a student in London, doing my masters when the 7/7 bombings happened and I live in Pakistan and there is a sense essentially of being looked down on of being denigrated and patronized so continually that there is no let up and you feel this when you are at an airport. You feel this when you hear about your country or your neighbors being portrayed on the news. We are not allowed our innocence the same way the West is. We are always called to account for anything that happens anywhere in the world by someone who looks like us, that has the same skin color as us, the same religion as us. And that’s an incredibly humiliating and also very angering experience to go into not just years, but really decades. So a lot of “The Runaways” was born out of that personal feeling.
JS: The most recent book, “New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop,” it includes the epigraph: “In a country, the road to reform travels through culture.” Those are words from the Ayatollah Khomeini, why did you begin there?
FB: Well, I thought it was important because I have a feeling as well that at least in the Western world, there’s an impression that only the West is concerned with culture and only the West is a nurturer and an encourager of culture. But of course everybody is interested in culture. And everybody reforms and understands themselves through culture and culture is a political tool as much as anything else.
JS: You also write about the great satan — how much of American pop hop culture is spread through the defense industrial complex and the mechanisms, the machinery of American imperialism. How did the kind of defense complex influence over American pop culture, particularly film, contribute to it spread around the world?
FB: That’s just the thing. You know, people assume that American pop culture which we all watch and enjoy, I mean, I’m a child of American pop culture, that it spreads just by virtue of its coolness. And of course, that’s not true. It’s not cooler or more sophisticated or more anything that anyone else. Part of the reason it spreads is through the defense complex. If you look at the 1960s, the late 1960s was the height of American military personnel deployment in the world. So 1968, you have over a million American military personnel deployed in over 50 odd countries. Today we’re at the lowest point of American military personnel deployment. And I think also we see very clearly American pop culture on decline. I think those two are connected.
When you have American military personnel deployed, they come with an enormous infrastructure, the machinery of bases. So not only are these people coming with their own films and tastes and interests, but they’re coming with these massive bases filled with people who need to be entertained. They’re bringing Hollywood films in. In the case of South Korea, you see that young people, if they wanted to play rock and roll, if they wanted to listen to rock and roll, they really only had one place to go, which was the American military bases. Otherwise in the cities popular music was something called trot which was a mix of Foxtrot and Japanese choral music.
[Korean trot music or ppongjjak plays.]
FB: Obviously young people don’t want to play trot. So they see the bases as a kind of Mecca. But so it’s deeply connected. And I think we think of culture, as divorced from politics, as divorced from states and of course, it’s not.
JS: Your book is about how countries like Turkey, South Korea, India, they’re lessening the grip of U.S. imperial dominance over pop culture today, globally. Maybe paint some of that landscape of that challenge that you write about to the American dominance over pop culture.
FB: America did dominate. It wasn’t just because they had a military bases everywhere and could bring their films. They did dominate because their films were incredibly aspirational and exciting for the times that they were created in. But of course, things have changed. Part of that has to do with migration and urbanization. In 2015, you know, a billion people migrated, the minority of that billion are moving internationally. The majority, over 700 million people are moving from within their own countries from rural homes into the city. And those people unmoored and displaced in these nameless, faceless cities, cut off from their traditional support, don’t really see their struggles and their suffering and their failings in American pop culture. You know, Avengers 17, or whatever number it’s on, today just doesn’t speak to that, or I don’t know, Modern Family, don’t speak to the tensions and the turbulence and the uncertainty of globalization. And they definitely don’t speak to the lie of globalization, which is that people were promised, you know, a century of access and wealth and power and prestige. And of course, the majority of the world has received none of that.
But what does speak to that frustration and I think that uncertainty, are newer cultural products. They’re not necessarily new in the sense of their industries — their industries have been making for decades — but they’re new in terms of how they’re capturing people’s imagination. And it’s not innocent. I mean, it’s not like American pop culture had this political design and these others don’t. Turkey certainly is positioning itself as a leader not just in the Middle East, not just in the Muslim world but in the world.
Erdogan imagines himself as a new Sultan, you know, as they are coming back, as it were. Ottomania is big at the moment. And that’s not only a political project, moved through Erdogan’s own politics and ideology, but it’s moved through culture too. Its position through these Turkish television shows, a lot of which capture Ottoman power and glorify Ottoman power and paint it as a just, magnificent, wise and tolerant power. I mean, we know that no empire is any of those things to the countries it invades. But that’s the picture if you watch “Magnificent Century,” which is one of the incredibly popular shows that have left Istanbul in recent years. These powers are not limited to Turkey. Of course, India is one of them. You know, China is going to be one of them very soon, if not already.
JS: It’s interesting you write about how K-pop is one of the fastest growing entertainment entities and it has its roots in the 1997 financial crisis in Asia. How did K-pop become the world phenomenon that it’s become?
FB: So it does have its roots, as you say in the Asian financial crisis. As Korea’s hit badly — as all the other Asian Tigers, as they were called, were hit — it has to rebuild and it faces an uncomfortable reality. At that time in the late 1990s, Korea takes out the largest ever IMF bailout — over $50 billion — which is incredibly humiliating for the country, so humiliating that they remembered as the IMF crisis, not the Asian financial crisis. And President Kim Dae-Jung has to rebuild an economy that cannot rely on pursuing military technology because of its mutual defense pact with America. It’s got no real arable land, no natural resources except ginseng.
And it cannot rely on what it has relied on in the past — those big, big multinationals like Samsung and Hyundai. What he does is he decides to focus on pop culture because pop culture requires no organizational infrastructure. It just requires talent and time. And so South Korea is laid with broadband internet as early as the late 1990s. A lot of money is put into the cultural ministries as well, not just into producing culture but educating the cultural ministry. So they’re issued with leaflets and booklets on how to promote Korean culture in the world.
And so K-pop comes out of this in a sense ultra-capitalistic model. It’s an industry that goes out to the world with design. So K-pop music is glocalized, which means that it takes Western pop tempos and music and it speeds them up. And that speed is what makes it dancey and happy and catchy.
[“Siren” by Sunmi plays. “Lord” by Gun plays. “Giddy Up” by Sik-K, pH-1, Woodie Gochild plays.]
FB: It’s huge from, you know, Iran to Detroit to Guatemala.
JS: I wanted to just as a sidebar, talk for a moment about the way that Pakistan was portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty.
Edgar Ramírez [as Larry]: The whole world’s gonna want in on this.
Mark Strong [as George]: I want targets.
JS: The role that the CIA plays in myth-making in Hollywood. I mean, that’s one of the most clear examples where you had, literally had the CIA — the most notorious spy agency in the world — actively involved with making that film happen.
FB: Yeah, absolutely. The CIA has a wing, you know, where they’ve got a website and everything where if you’re making a film and you need their help, they will help you. They’ll help you with script development, you know, provided you’re telling the right kind of story and Zero Dark Thirty was, of course, one of those right kind of stories. It’s a completely fallacious film in the sense that its argument is that torture is what helped America find Osama bin Laden, which of course we know is absolutely not true. And the other thing that it does is it aligns your sympathies and your gaze 100% with the torturers, you know, rather than with the tortured. It’s an offensive movie on so many levels. But one scene that I always recall, is that scene where a CIA officer is waterboarding a man.
Jason Clark [as Dan]: Where was the last time you saw bin Laden? Where was the last time you saw bin Laden, huh? When you lie to me, I hurt you.
Reda Kateb [as Reda Kateb]: [Chokes on water.]
FB: The camera directs you not to the man being waterboarded. Of course, we don’t know his name, we don’t really know is he innocent at the end? Is he somebody just picked up? Or is he really some malevolent person? That’s besides the point. He’s being tortured and the camera directs you to Jessica Chastain’s character who was a CIA agent, who is shuddering and shivering in a corner. You know, the CIA agent is always portrayed as ultra compassionate — compassionate beyond Gandhi, let’s say. At some point, the torturer has to stop and check with Jessica Chastain, you know, and he walks over her and says, “Are you OK?” And she says, “Yes, yes, I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” It’s absurd, actually. But that’s the power of film. You know, it has absolutely the power to show us where our sympathy lies, where our allegiance lies, where our solidarity lies, and where we are allowed to ask questions and where we’re not.
JS: When we look back at post-9/11 to the present, Pakistan played such a huge role in this emerging borderless war that the United States is waging around the world. And particularly during the Obama era, we heard a lot about Pakistan because Obama was just mercilessly drone bombing Pakistan. At some points, once every three days or so Obama was striking.
Al Jazeera: U.S. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has admitted for the first time that drones are regularly striking Taliban and Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The unmanned aircraft have been blamed for killing civilians as well as Taliban fighters.
JS: And you had the Raymond Davis affair where two people were shot in Lahore and the U.S. claimed “Oh, he’s just a contractor.”
Brian Ross: The American, Raymond Davis, a former Special Forces soldier, opened fire from inside his car in the city of Lahore.
JS: Turned out that he was working for the CIA, had connections to Blackwater. Then you had the John Kerry diplomacy to shuttle Raymond Davis out of the country. It was Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan, drone strikes, go after the Pakistani Taliban. And now it’s sort of like we don’t hear much in that context about Pakistan in the American media. What has happened in Pakistan since 9/11?
FB: Pakistan at that time was under a military dictatorship, Pervez Musharraf led a coup d’etat and was the head of the government. America’s reliance on Pakistan essentially propped up that dictatorship for as long as it lasted. That’s what you continually see, unfortunately. You know, he’s not the worst dictator that America has been a part of enabling and giving a great amount of aid and political credibility to, of course, General Zia-ul-Haq was the first because they needed him to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Ronald Reagan: President Zia, Begum Zia, distinguished guests, it’s an honor for me to welcome you to the White House this evening.
FB: And then General Pervez Musharraf was needed to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.
George W. Bush: Shortly after 9/11, Secretary Colin Powell came in and said President Musharraf understands the stakes and he wants to join and help.
FB: And that burdened Pakistan greatly because of course, any attempts to push forward for democratic change, even in the smallest way, was stymied. Pakistan received billions and billions of dollars of aid, while still remaining rife with incredibly basic problems — polio, lack of electricity, lack of schooling, lack of health care. And this has always been, I think, the crux of why the two countries have always had such an ugly relationship. On the one hand, America gives a lot of money to Pakistan’s army and expects them to then be grateful partners, at the same time as they are ruthlessly drone bombing Pakistani people.
You mentioned President Obama. It was I think 72 hours within him entering the White House that he ordered his first drone strike against Pakistan.
Barack Obama: This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists.
FB: President Obama was a deeply unpopular figure in Pakistan because people expected him somehow magically to turn the course of the relationship. And of course he couldn’t. He didn’t. The Raymond Davis affair soured things even worse.
BR: [People shouting.] What’s followed over the last three weeks has turned into a showdown between the U.S. and Pakistan. Demonstrators have demanded Davis be tried and hanged.
FB: Doesn’t serve jail time, isn’t taken before the law, but is allowed to give blood money and then spirited out of the country.
So Pakistan’s attempts to build reliable institutions are never encouraged by their most democratic partner or by any of their democratic allies, let’s say. Those institutions are always pushed down for whatever is expedient and necessary at the time.
You know, we had a terrible incident in a school, in the Army Public School of Peshawar several years ago. Militants entered the school and gunned down over 100 children, a horrific incident in the country. And I think that something has changed in Pakistan since that. Not that Pakistan is safer necessarily, not that the government is less encouraging of militants, but Pakistani people just no longer have the appetite to endure any of this carnage any longer. So we’re a country coming out of this — coming out of 20 years of just bloodletting.
JS: Both of these works that we’re talking about “The Runaways” and “The New Kings” examine the digital age’s role in transforming individual lives and larger society. What are your thoughts about the role that the digital age is playing in our lives in the world?
FB: “The Runaways” is really about the weaponization of the internet and digital culture and social media, and how easily it can become a medium for weaponizing discontent and alienation and how it’s used in this very seductive way by radical groups to bring people into their fold and “New Kings of the World” tells a different part of it. As nationalism is on the rise, as populism grows by restricting people within their borders, by shutting down interaction between countries and cultures and encouraging a fear of others, ultimately, everything I found in “New Kings” points to the opposite that as people we are still curious about other people’s stories, we accept other people’s stories. We want other people’s stories and we connect to other people, no matter the differences that may exist.
JS: From the research that you’ve done and immersing yourself in these worlds. Give us some films or series that we may not have heard of that we should definitely check out.
FB: The best Turkish dizi that I watched was a dizi called Cukur and it’s essentially The Godfather, but set in an Istanbul ghetto. In terms of Bollywood the best Bollywood film I’ve seen in a long time is Gully Boy. I think Pakistan is producing interesting stuff too. There’s a film called Zindagi Tamasha that’s about to come out from Pakistan and that looks quite interesting. It’s about a man threatened with being accused of blasphemy. Iranian cinema, there’s a great film called The Lizard, which is about a man who escapes from prison — he’s a petty thief — by dressing up as a Mullah. For the western products, there’s a show called The Bureau, which is about the French intelligence, and it goes between Syria and Daesh to Iran and the nuclear program to Israel. It beats anything that’s come out of America. I mean, it certainly beats Homeland and 24 and things like that.
JS: Fatima Bhutto, thank you very much for joining us on intercepted.
FB: Thank you Jeremy.
JS: Fatima Bhutto is the author of a number of books of both fiction and nonfiction. Her most recent books include “The Runaways,” a novel that is out elsewhere in the world but should be available next year in the United States; as well as “New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop.” That is available right now. You can also find Fatima on Twitter and Instagram at @fbhutto.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and now on Instagram @interceptedpodcast. If you like what we do, you can support our show by going to TheIntercept.com/join to become a sustaining member. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro, our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer.
I want to say a fond farewell to my colleague who was instrumental in starting this program: our incredible executive producer Leital Molad. We are sad to see her go but we are excited for her opportunities and we are grateful for all the hard work that she did to create this program. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Leital.
Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.