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Congressional Candidate Norman Solomon on What Makes a Healthy Progressive Ecosystem

Norman Solomon. (Photo: Steve Rhodes / Flickr) Norman Solomon, a longtime activist and media scholar, first came under FBI scrutiny at the age of 14 for picketing a segregated apartment complex near his home in Maryland. In the following years, Solomon campaigned against nuclear weapons and warfare, spending a total of 40 days in jail for nonviolent civil disobedience. He is author of a dozen books and numerous op-eds that have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets. Currently, he has been engaged in a competitive campaign to represent Northern California’s District 2 in the US House of Representatives.

Norman Solomon. (Photo: Steve Rhodes / Flickr)

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Norman Solomon, a longtime activist and media scholar, first came under FBI scrutiny at the age of 14 for picketing a segregated apartment complex near his home in Maryland. In the following years, Solomon campaigned against nuclear weapons and warfare, spending a total of 40 days in jail for nonviolent civil disobedience. He is author of a dozen books and numerous op-eds that have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets. Currently, he has been engaged in a competitive campaign to represent Northern California’s District 2 in the US House of Representatives.

Keane Bhatt for Truthout: The US appears to be committing itself to yet another intervention. At the end of March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Saudi King Abdullah, an autocrat who recently signed a $60 billion agreement to buy US bombs, missiles, helicopters and 84 F-15 fighter jets. After conferring with him, Clinton joined the “Friends of Syria” coalition and the US will now equip and pay the rebels in Syria. UN envoy Kofi Annan considered a further militarization of the conflict and the arming of rebels “disastrous.” What is behind this continuity in US foreign policy?

Norman Solomon: By the time I’d finished writing the book “War Made Easy,” I was talking about the “repetition compulsion disorder” of our warfare state. The subtitle of the book is not at all flip; it’s gravely serious: “How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us To Death.”

We have been living in a political, social and media environment that inures us, quite often, to just how unrelenting it is. In a sense, ever since the Vietnam War, despite the tremendous opposition that grew against it, ongoing war has been normalized – especially since the fall of 2001. It’s a kind of choreography that people find themselves dancing to without necessarily thinking about it. The term “knee-jerk” comes to mind; it’s sort of a forced dance, a lockstep. One might say this forced march is the domestic parallel to the literal march into war that so many young people have experienced under one commander-in-chief after another.

I believe that we are so accustomed to rationales being provided for intervention that scrutiny of them is the exception rather than the rule. It’s very hard to find examples in our news media or among substantial numbers of legislators on Capitol Hill asking important questions before the US moves into yet another military intervention. This is tragic in so many ways; it’s the water that we swim in, the water that we must scrutinize.

KB: In your writings you’ve talked about Iraq and not just the 2003 invasion, but also the protracted period of sanctions that preceded this, implemented during the Clinton administration. This silent suffering is even less scrutinized, to the extent that Madeleine Albright, when confronted on national television about the hundreds of thousands of children who died as a result, responded, “We think the price is worth it.” Do you think the current sanctions imposed by a Democratic president on Iran will forestall a large-scale military intervention, or will the sanctions be just a prelude to invasion?

NS: First, I would note that in terms of the US public, there is a split-screen perception of conflict with other countries. The received conventional wisdom is served up by mainstream corporate-owned media and largely in news coverage by NPR and so forth. And then there are, at this point, into the tens of millions of people who are politically alert, who rely not only on the traditional media sources but also a wide range of high-quality websites, or radio/TV outlets such as Democracy Now!, Real News, etc. Independent, largely progressive online news sources provide a much deeper – and in a good sense, a more nuanced – view of the world. This is a split between a lockstep and more discerning analysis of what we can call the “warfare state.”

So Iraq and the US role there, goes back to the first Gulf War and the horrors that the US inflicted on many Iraqi people in early 1991. The widely embraced notion that the war was a “success” masked a lot of the human realities. Then there were the years of sanctions under the Clinton administration that had a ravaging effect, so that many people died unnecessarily, because the sanctions prevented lifesaving medicines and other products from getting into the country.

So when there’s an establishment view that a policy has been successful and a human reality that the same policy has been devastating, we have a huge disconnect, which is emblematic of contrary narratives of cause and effect, and of the US role.

I’m often asked, “Are you against all war?” And my response is, “If a war is justified, then our government doesn’t need to lie about it.” And that’s the standard I apply to military intervention and other forms of US actions against other countries. So if we think about Iran and our lens is tinted red, white and blue, we are going to reach certain conclusions. History didn’t begin when we decided it began; there were certain prior events.

When I went to Iran a number of years ago, the shadow of the US-British coup against [the democratically elected Prime Minister] Mossadegh was still there. And the country is still reeling from the consequences of how democracy was undermined in that country back in the early 1950s. Then, for decades, people there lived under a tyrannical Shah, backed by the US, and now for decades the people in Iran have suffered from an often-tyrannical regime that was made possible, arguably at least, by the US supporting a coup and a repressive regime. Part of the standard USA story line is that the US is always galloping up on a white horse trying to set people free. It’s a nice story line – but reality, unfortunately, is quite different.

Part of what is so disturbing about the current momentum toward a military attack on Iran is that it is fueled largely by US domestic politics – and that ain’t new. This is part of the pattern of what I call jingo-narcissism, where what really matters is the US and how our worldview prevails in terms of understanding the globe. I know bumper-sticker politics has a bad sound to it, but I do want to quote a bumper sticker that I saw. It’s colored red, white and blue and it says, “These colors don’t run … the world.” That red, white and blue bumper sticker, to me, really challenges what we often have internalized.

It questions the worldview that the checks to war are simply the limitations of the Pentagon – that there are x number of troops and a couple major wars can be fought simultaneously. Rather than war being a matter of international law, or reliance on diplomacy instead of military force, or prudence to think beyond the next election, the tacit question becomes, “How can the US work its will around the world given the constraints of US military and economic power?” And if the question is wrong, then the answer will be wrong. And in many ways international law is at stake. If we are against the use of massive violence to achieve political ends, then we ought to be a role model for that.

When I was in Tehran [in 2005], I spent 10 days interviewing anybody I could find – all types of people from all walks of life: From former president Rafsanjani, to students, to poor people, people that were going to the polls to vote for Ahmadinejad during his first election. I kept perceiving that the US message – “Do as we say, not as we do” – just falls flat in so many parts of the world. That applies to nuclear weapons, to nuclear development in general and to a reliance on force.

If you look at the invasion record of the US – even just in that region – and compare it to the invasion record of Iran, which is basically non-existent in all of our lifetimes and even before, you see that the US is repeatedly acting out a narrative that says, “If you’ve got the military power to do it and you decide it’s in your interest, you will bomb and kill thousands of people and you will invade and overthrow a government that you don’t like.”

And unfortunately, the sanctions regimen, however humane it might sound, often is part of the progression of assault rather than an alternative to it. Likewise, the pantomime of “diplomacy.”

In “War Made Easy,” I sketched out the macabre and cynical way in which purported diplomacy was used by the Bush administration leading up to the invasion of Iraq. I quoted some of the supposedly more rational media voices, such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. He wrote that the United Nations must be used to legitimize US power. And so the UN becomes valid and useful only to the extent that it serves the desires and dictates of the White House. And that’s a pattern of political discourse in the media within the US that has been in place for decades, no matter who has been in the White House.

The consequences are that the UN has been largely made ineffective as a world body to promote peace. It’s sort of like the US saying the UN will only do things if we find it a useful instrument for our foreign policy and that has stymied a lot of potential the UN has had to prevent military action. My belief is that the last decade and more have drastically undermined international law, severely damaged mechanisms for alternatives to war and we now are in a dynamic of threats and very limited use of “diplomacy,” which serves as an adjunct to the threats, rather than as a real alternative to them.

KB: Your book begins with what many consider a minor footnote in the modern history of US foreign affairs: Lyndon Johnson’s invasion of the Dominican Republic to prevent a popular uprising from reinstating a democratically elected leader, Juan Bosch. The documentary film adapted from the book focused a lot of attention on Afghanistan, even though at the time, most outrage was directed toward Iraq and Afghanistan was widely considered the “good war.” Why did you consider the invasion of Afghanistan illegitimate and immoral from the very beginning and how does this inform your advocacy today?

NS: When I first went to Baghdad in September of 2002, I brought with me a copy of Albert Camus’s book, “Neither Victims Nor Executioners.” There’s a passage in there where he talked about the gamble that “words are more powerful than munitions.”

And after 9/11, there was the oft-quoted poem by W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939.” But the lines that jumped out at me that were not cited in the US media say, “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.” I’ve come to believe that a lot of what undergirds the political and human fallacies of US foreign policy, including military intervention, are numbing towards grief. The grief of others is assumed to be of greatly diminished importance compared to our own.

I felt that at a gut level, there was a political imperative in the US being fomented through news media and acquiescent politicians in Washington in the days after September 11, 2001: some people would need to pay for the horrendous mass murder that had occurred. Whether those people had anything to do with 9/11 was psychologically and politically quite secondary and perhaps even beside the point.

The United States of America had to show that there would be massive consequences for what happened on 9/11. It had to be huge in terms of commensurate destruction. And Afghanistan was the place to do it. Of course there was tremendous grief and anger, as there had to be – as there needed to be – after September 11. But I think we saw pretty quickly that wars are very easy to start and very difficult to circumscribe. And the US set in motion, as per the lines of the W.H. Auden poem, dynamics that would not be controlled and would spin out of control.

I remember when I visited Afghanistan in 2009, I wrote a paper about it, which I gave to some staffers and Members of Congress. I said the wheels are coming off this policy and this war effort in Afghanistan. Only in the delusions of some journalists, politicians and think-tankers in Washington is war this tidy, controllable thing.

It’s chaotic; it is horrific for people; it has terrible consequences and the consequences can’t be contained.

That’s what Barbara Lee, in her wisdom and her courage, was referring to, three days after 9-11, with the US poised to cash the blank check that the Congress was about to sign with its resolution – cashed with the blood of Americans and Afghans and later the blood of Iraqi people. She said, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” When this comes up on the campaign trail, I say, matter-of-factly, that if I had been in the House of Representatives, Lee’s vote would not have been the only one against that blank check for wars.

We have watched from the United States, but people in Afghanistan have experienced firsthand, what it means to set in motion yet another wave of massive violence. It’s a cycle. There is a way in which one war begets another. I am not a “pacifist,” if you will. I do believe that war requires a very high threshold of justification.

As I discovered while researching and writing “War Made Easy,” every major war effort in my lifetime, which is from the Vietnam War onward, has been accompanied and prefaced by massive deceptive efforts by our own government. The role of the US government should not be to lie to its own people. I want to go to Congress to work with other progressives there to change course and to bring about a different set of priorities.

KB: On the campaign trail, you’ve spoken about the mundane, bureaucratic routine in Washington, DC, that can lead to massive devastation in far-flung corners of the world. Explain how strokes of the pen, often from anonymous staffers, can determine the fate of countless thousands of human beings. How do you see the functioning of these powerful institutions and the people within them?

NS: When I attended a forum organized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Capitol Hill in early 2009, I was struck by the depth of historical inquiry and analysis. The caucus then recommended 80 percent non-military spending by the US in Afghanistan. The new president, unfortunately, came back with a supplemental package that authorized 90 percent military spending in that country.

When I went to Afghanistan a number of months later and visited a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul, I saw the consequences of those line items. People were in these camps who had literally had their last significant contact with the US government when Pentagon bombs fell on their neighborhoods.

Uncle Sam has the money to bomb them and not to feed them, quite literally. That’s the connection between policy-speak on Capitol Hill and human life or death that is real – not only in Afghanistan but in many other parts of the world, including, I might add, in the US. Another bumper sticker I cite says, “I love my country, but we’ve got to start seeing other people.” And really seeing the humanity of other people makes it much more difficult to turn away and to put such low priority on their health care, their housing, their nutrition. War thrives on abstraction and so do these line item priorities that unfortunately often have such devastating effects.

KB: Did this analysis affect your decision to engage in electoral politics?

NS: The blurring, numbing routine with life-and-death consequences certainly exists on Capitol Hill. And as someone who has never run for public office before, on the campaign trail I sometimes encounter the opinion that a Member of Congress should have worked his or her way up the politicians’ ladder previously. I think of Paul Wellstone, who never had held a political office before he won a US Senate seat; I think of George McGovern, who had never held a political office before getting to Congress. There are plenty of other examples of some of our best Members of Congress who augmented the usual experiential base.

I don’t have the experience of taking corporate money to getting elected to a lower rung on political ladder. I come out of social movements. Often, there is a tendency to think that when Members of Congress pass memorable legislation (all too rarely, unfortunately), they themselves did it all. In fact, social movements did the heavy lifting and that’s true historically. In my own lifetime, how did we get civil rights legislation? And Medicare? And environmental protection (to the extent that we have it)? And women’s and gay rights laws? And on and on. We got it because social movements led from the bottom.

I believe we need to find more tangible ways for progressives in Congress and social movements at the grassroots to work closely together. I use the metaphor of a gear spinning on Capitol Hill in the Progressive Caucus and many gears are spinning among progressives around this country and the teeth are not meshing very well. And they can mesh a lot better. That means we can move our agenda forward, but it means approaching Congress, including from inside, from the standpoint of organizing. I am an organizer; I’ve been doing political activism for several decades and that’s how I think about making change.

Our campaign for Congress has defied conventional wisdom every step of the way. We are in a very good position to finish in the top two in what is a top-two primary system and, from our June 5 election, advance to the general election in November. We have done it not by following conventional wisdom, but by organizing from the grassroots. I say that ours is a grassroots-versus-astroturf campaign.

We have had more house parties than all the other campaigns put together. We, for many months, have had two campaign offices open, whereas none of my opponents have any open, even now, weeks before voting by mail begins. We have more than 5,000 individual donors. We have more than 1,000 volunteers. And we are not taking a penny of corporate PAC money. We are not taking lobbyist money. We are raising enough money (although we can certainly use more), to win this campaign.

So I believe that what we do should be prefigurative rather than just prescriptive. If somebody talked a lot about saving the environment and drove up in a Hummer, you might think, “Wow, there is a disconnect here.” And a lot of liberal and progressive politicians are talking about how campaign finance reform is essential, but they are financing their campaigns pretty much the same old way. And we are proving that there is another way: we have raised well over half a million dollars from 5,100 different contributors and I’m very proud of that.

We’ve put together a campaign that is consistent with what we are advocating. We are walking what we are talking. Another way to put it is this: I believe that the massive problems we are looking at – from climate change to huge economic inequality, to the warfare state and more – are concentric with corporate domination, Wall Street domination and a dire lack of grassroots democracy at the center of why we keep having these horrendous, worsening problems.

Our campaign is not only prescriptive – a program to challenge what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex and Wall Street domination – but we are embodying in our campaign a grassroots, small-d democratic activism, which includes telling lobbyists and corporate political action committees, “We don’t want your money.” We have been offered funding from those places and we don’t want it.

KB: Many on the left are dismissive of representative politics in the US. They feel that the electoral arena – at least at this moment – is a pointless endeavor. How would you convince those reading this to give up an aloof posture, especially when public opinion of Congress is so low?

NS: We need to occupy – literally and figuratively – Congressional seats for the 99 percent. Social movements need a healthy ecology, which means a wide array of activities and manifestations of grassroots power. That includes progressives in Congress. I say on the campaign trail that we need our feet on the ground and our eyes on the stars of our ideals.

It’s not good enough to have one or the other. State power matters – we’ve seen that from county and state offices to Washington, D.C. And, as somebody who has written literally thousands of articles, 12 books, gone to hundreds of demonstrations and probably organized hundreds of demonstrations, I believe we always have to be protesting; we always have to be in the streets. It’s not either-or. I want our feet on the ground to include change for government policies. Laws matter. Whether or how they are enforced matters.

I think people sometimes confuse their own individual preferences, talents, strengths and interests with the totality of what an effective movement needs to do. In Latin America, we have seen the tremendous power of combining social movements that permeate the grassroots with the ballot box. Whatever their shortcomings, if you look at what’s happened in Brazil in terms of hunger and in other countries in the southern cone and elsewhere that not more than a couple decades ago were ruled by vicious dictators, they have been implementing genuinely progressive policies. We have an opportunity here to get beyond dualistic thinking and start thinking of synergy rather than this counterposing of our options, which creates a false either-or scenario.

Right now there is a tremendous awakening in this country about income inequality. People are fed up with war, and so many people are seeing that the status quo is a prescription for more suffering. We have to see this time as not for being dogmatic about one tactic or another, but seeing that in the context of non-violent, small-d democratic action here. Another way to put it: it is a historic mistake for progressives to leave the electoral arena to corporate Democrats and Republicans.

KB: You mention corporate Democrats and maybe you can explain why you chose to run within the Democratic Party as opposed to running as an independent or Green candidate. It was disturbing, though expected, to see the pro-labor, pro-civil liberties, anti-imperialist Kucinich ridiculed and marginalized by many Democrats for his “zaniness.” How would you deal with similar treatment?

NS: Well, no good deed goes unpunished and the scorn directed at Dennis Kucinich is commensurate with his vision and his wisdom. And that just comes with the territory. Bernie Sanders is an independent, but he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate as he had in the House. When people say “the Democrats,” I ask, “Who are you talking about?”

Are you talking about Steny Hoyer and Rahm Emanuel? Or are you talking about Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey? This has historically always been the case. When we had Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, we also had Democrats who were avowed racists and power brokers on Capitol Hill in the 1960s, so this is always a struggle. Paul Wellstone talked about representing and fighting for what he called the democratic wing of the Democratic Party and I would like to fight for the progressive wing of our social movements in Congress.

The pathways to having progressive values be represented and implemented in the Congress should not be dogmatic and in fact, if they are dogmatic, they are going to get clogged up and not going to be successful in making “power” a good word. We associate power, understandably, in negative terms because power is wielded from the top so often in economic and political ways to the detriment of human well-being and social progress.

But power that’s responsive to and reflective of, people’s ideals from the grassroots – that can be a really good thing. And manifesting that power should include having our voices heard in Congress. In progressive districts around the country, that’s a really good way to get the job done this year.

This north coast district, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border, is one of the most progressive districts in the country and it’s an opportunity here. All the way up and down the coast, hearing from and talking to people who are angry with Wall Street for good reasons, sick of one war after another, wanting to end all wars, I’ve learned that they want to repair health care and they are very progressive on social issues. Here, as in other parts of the country, we have real opportunities to have progressive representation added to, or at least retained, in Congress.

KB: Finally, what are some of your domestic priorities? You’ve referred to yourself as an “unreconstructed” New Deal supporter, someone who wants to put some of the more than 20 million unemployed or underemployed to work on a massive green infrastructure plan.

NS: On my website, I go into detail on all my policy stances, but I believe that progressives are not only idealistic but are very pragmatic. When I go all over this district, the story is the same. At the city, county and state level, the budget is worse now than it was last year and it looks like it’s going to be worse next year than it is now.

I don’t see a plausible way to pull the economy out of the ditch and reverse the spiraling downward trend of all sorts of social institutions without massive public investment that can only come from the federal government. I co-chaired the Commission on a Green New Deal for two years in Sonoma and Marin counties and it was a community initiative to look into how we could move into a Green New Deal. There is a role for all levels of government and I believe that as someone in Congress, I can help to move federal policy in the direction that, as a practical matter, will require a massive reordering of priorities.

We need the modern equivalent of the Works Progress Administration and other programs that put people to work, recognizing that we know so much more about the ecological imperative. That’s why we call it a Green New Deal. But it is so much within our grasp to end this tacit acceptance of letting old people and children go down one rung of the ladder after another in terms of the quality of life.

To digress, just yesterday I was in the little town of Point Arena in Mendocino County, having lunch with dozens of seniors and there was concern all over. People were saying, “We believe that this senior center might be closed.” I heard the same thing a little bit farther north in the town of Fort Bragg when I visited the senior center there. What kind of society has seniors worrying that the place where they can go and have a decent lunch might be closing? It’s their connection to people, it’s a lifeline – sometimes literally.

The option to renew the social compact with federal public investment is, I think, very exciting and it can be done. It’s economic populism that offers a future. Right now a future is not being offered in our country to people of whatever age. How can there be a future when seniors are worried with good reason that the strands of the safety net continue to fray; when there is massive unemployment and underemployment; when the schools, roads, bridges are falling apart; when the opportunity for green public transportation continues to fall through our fingers; when our environment continues to be further ravaged?

Our campaign is really about having feet on the ground and insisting that we are not going to put up with this anymore. Progressive economic populism is really central to our campaign. I do want to say that as somebody who has written books and done political organizing, campaigns are not rocket science, but they are really challenging. They require people to be tenacious and be determined. That’s why we’re moving ahead so well in this campaign, because there are so many people who are committed, who have been donating money, volunteering and spreading the word. And that’s the central dynamic that’s in our favor – so many people are determined, directly engaged in our campaign and at this point I’m asking that of people around the country. Even for those who don’t live in my district and can’t vote for me, I can still vote for them on the floor of the US House of Representatives.

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