Dr. Tony Kashani:“The US is now the richest democracy with the highest level of inequality. The oligarchs run the show”.
Mohsen Abdelmoumen: How do you explain the catastrophic management of the Covid-19 crisis by the Trump administration? Can we talk about the failure of the system?
Dr. Tony Kashani: Indeed, Trump administration’s handling of the Coronavirus Covid-19 Pandemic crisis has been a colossal failure. There is no central leadership and national standard in place. In other countries the scientists are in charge of setting standards and leading the way toward managing the crisis. But here we have the confused VP, Mike Pence going around and simply echoing “progress and good news” preached by Trump. The numbers do not lie, 175 000 lives lost and counting. His lack of compassion for human lives, especially the black and brown Americans and his solipsism combined with a team of incompetent sycophants have created a massive void of leadership at the federal level.
But it is not just Trump, the gangster sociopath and his cronies that should get the blame. The establishment in congress, particularly the Republican senators who are in lockstep with Trump and his proto-fascism have shown their true ideological faces by approving a weak financial stimulus package that, unlike their European or Canadian packages, does not take adequate care of American citizens. In a democracy the government is elected to manage and distribute fairly the people’s tax money. To that end, it is the moral obligation of the elected officials to take care of people and promote the greatest good for the greatest majority and not just a tiny group of wealthy and affluent. Then there is the dysfunctional health care system. If we had more of a heterogenous health care system we would be in less of a mess and less lives would be lost. The health care workers such as physicians, nurses, and orderlies risk their lives to help save lives while dealing with inadequate supply of protective gear and things like ventilators. And, of course, the story of delayed testing and decentralized tracing exasperates the situation further. There are those who take seriously their role as public servants and try their best in that regard. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Bernie Sanders come to mind. Recently, most lawmakers went along with the absurd push for reopening of the economy and forcing people to risk their lives by going back to work so the system could be preserved. It is, of course, it has backfired on them. We have had a massive surge in cases and deaths and the equally massive unemployment persists. Most Western institutions have a division of risk management and plan for disasters that may arrive, be it an economic recession, war or a virus outbreak. It is abundantly clear that our current governing system predicated on Neoliberal Capitalist policies had no such plans and with its hubris assumed it could simply survive any crisis. Thus far, it has been a car crash with many fatalities. If folks are willing to look carefully at the recent history, after the SARS outbreak, scientists had predicted that a bigger outbreak of a novel Coronavirus would occur, and it could potentially become a pandemic if not planned for. Well, here we are. What is more is that after surviving this Covid-19 crisis we must deal with future crises of climate change, new viruses, fires, and exacerbated world hunger and displaced refugees. It is not a matter of if but when. Can humanity survive if we continue what we are doing now? The answer is no. We must change our behavior. For a couple of centuries, we have posited that we are the overlords of the ecosystem and in charge. Clearly, we are not.
Despite all the means available to the mainstream media in the USA, they have shown their mediocrity and their limits in the media management of the Covid-19 pandemic. How do you explain this failure? Can it be said that the political-media establishment has failed in the management of the Covid-19 crisis in the USA?
The Big Three, FNC, CNN, and MSNBC with Fox News having the highest viewership and ratings have not given adequate attention to Covid-19 pandemic. FNC (Fox News) which has the highest viewership (averaging around 2.5 million viewers at primetime) has consistently downplayed the threat of covid-19 and while fudging the data does not offer stories about how other countries are handling the pandemic. To be sure, the other two, while giving us the numbers only play the blame game and sensational offering. The New York times and Wall Street Journal do not fare better. To get truly global news one has to be critically media literate and go seek alternative sources. Aljazeera, for instance, has done a much better job of covering the pandemic news with regular updates on how countries like Germany, New Zealand, Finland, and Thailand, et al have had enormous success in containing the virus and keeping their citizens safe and functioning.
Let’s look at the roots of this situation. The signing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act by Bill Clinton ushered in a two-pronged development in American media. Deregulation and consolidation of ownership of the media worked hand in glove to create a corporate media 90% of which is owned by a handful of conglomerates with revenues larger than some small nations’ GDP. With the emergence of digital communication networks, which created the powerful companies such as Facebook and Twitter, the rage was about the Internet setting us free. Well, the results have been mixed. We have more citizen journalism that counter the centrist agenda setting stories produced by CNN and NY Times or more conservative agenda setting approach by Wall Street Journal and almost exclusively fake news produced by Fox News. There is an accepted infidelity to truth in American media. NPR and PBS tend to be relatively decent news gatherers and producers of neutral programs. But public broadcasting has been systemically marginalized since its inception. That is not to say that excellent journalism does not exist in America. This country is brimming with talent. The Hill’s Rising with Krystal & Saagar and Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now are good examples of truthful independent journalism.
However, given the corporate control, aside from the occasional good work at NY Times and Washington post or sometimes at CNN, truth telling journalism resides in the margins. We are in need of serious reform in the FCC and massive funding for public and independent journalism in print, electronic, and broadcast forms. It used to be that the press served as the fourth branch of government in this country, holding the authority’s feet to the fire. Now, if a journalist steps out of line he or she will be labeled as a conspiracy theorist, agent of foreign enemies, anti-American and unpatriotic. That journalist would be pushed to the margins. But the margin can be powerful too. For example, there are those like former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges who offer to the public a powerful voice of dissent and speak truth to power.
With exploding inequalities, widespread precarity, job losses, rising unemployment, etc., is it not time, in your opinion, to look for a viable alternative to this disastrous neo-liberal system?
Yes. I will expand a bit here.
In 2017 Donald Trump, or more correctly, the plutocracy of billionaires and their chosen politicians (mostly Republican), the 2 trillion-dollar tax cut measure was passed by the Republican controlled Senate, 80% of its benefits going to the super wealthy and large corporations. The 1% got richer while the 99% got poorer. The US, can be argued, is now the richest democracy with the highest level of inequality. The oligarchs run the show. Many moons ago, we used to have an economy predicated on production and government expenditure (Keynesian model) to stimulate growth and produce livable wages. It had its problems, but it was effective in producing a viable middle class. But ever since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan led policies were implemented, thus producing Neoliberal policies of governments in developed and developing countries, we have seen the rising administrative power of global agencies such as the World Bank, IMF, WTO, etc., essentially making the world one giant Neoliberal experiment with varying degrees here and there with the US as its epicenter.
To be sure, it is possible to have a society that has a market economy but does not privatize and commodify its health care system, education, and utilities (including the Internet services). If we had a financial sector that offered a 50/50 banking through credit unions and commercial banks and limited interest rates to a manageable single digit number through government regulation, then we could see a healthier economy that actually had a strong middle class. With this level of unemployment and underemployment a strong government hiring program is the right approach.
Where’s the American Left in all this? Don’t we need a big labor movement to fight against neoliberal policies?
The American left is in disarray. Unfortunately, many decades of active professionalization of the American universities has produced far too many white middle class liberals who call themselves members of the left but when compared to their counterparts in Europe and developing countries are simply centrists who want to have their cake and eat it too. I know of political science professors who narrow their teaching and participation in civil discourses to identity politics and produce their point of view through the prism of only white feminism and black and Eurocentric anti-racism while ignoring the imperial projects and atrocities around the world along with austerity measures that produce economic violence on massive scale. I know of professional professors with security of tenure and healthy salaries who are up in arms about Donald Trump’s openly racist rhetoric while ignoring the economic violence visited upon working class white, black, and brown Americans via neoliberal practices in the workplace. They also fail to recognize the impact of brutal proxy wars in Yemen and Syria and an insanely violent apartheid against Palestinians by Israelis supported by their tax dollars.
When Bernie Sanders’ campaign was showing excellent promise of taking hold of the system and making him the nominee for the Democratic party, the corporate media resorted to its tried-and-true tactics of manipulation through echo chambers of “moderation.” They were successful at undermining his campaign and painting him as an idealist and impractical socialist while elevating Joe Biden as the realist and seasoned moderate leader. This was the classic case of media bamboozling that has been so successful the past forty years or so. And prior to Super Tuesday the Democratic National Committee’s machine went into overdrive and rallied their local leaders to endorse Biden and convince enough voters to support the “realist” candidate, henceforth preserving the system. The craven liberals who call themselves the American left followed suit and bought into the fallacious stories and pushed Biden to the top. The character assassination of Bernie Sanders was successful. As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his much-quoted Letter from Birmingham Jail, “over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.”
But I also like to point out that given how a microscopic virus who does not belong anywhere in the political spectrum is exposing the fallacies of the system. Poll after poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, support progressive ideas. Things like free tuition college education, universal health care, employment wage protection, free childcare, sick leave for workers, taxing the wealthy individuals and corporations, and defunding the military and the police to fund social services. The business as usual will not suffice. Austerity measures, lies about unaffordability, and pretenses of caring about the poor and middle-class folks are all exposed. How long will Americans and others around the world tolerate such domination of the people is a question to be thinking about. In other words, Neoliberalism has failed the majority of Americans and now with the pandemic conditions the woke population has a chance to rise up and force real change for equity and egalitarian policies. There is evidence that Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and other progressives, what you may call the real left, are influencing Joe Biden’s campaign and applying pressure to Democrats to adopt progressive policies. These material conditions are akin to the great depression and FDR’s time. Will the white middle class liberals join forces with their black and brown brothers and sisters, along with radical thinkers like Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, Henry Giroux, to name a few, to create a powerful leftist coalition to bring about change in this country? Time will tell.
As for the necessity of a strong labor movement to fight off Neoliberalism, Absolutely. For that to happen we must actively build bridges between identity politics movements such as Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and various labor rights movements such as Uber and Lyft drivers struggles to be recognized as employees and not contractors with no benefits and absolutely no protection by the local and federal governments. In the early 1980’s, approximately 20% of employed wage and salary workers in the US were unionized, if you go to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics website, you will find that in 2019, the rate–was 10.3 percent. This must change if we want to have an equitable market economy that is for the people by the people. But there are encouraging signs from organizing efforts the gig workers like Uber drivers, Amazon delivery folks, and warehouse workers to part-time teachers, that we are starting to build a coalition of labor.
Personally, I believe that education is a major key in the fight against the neoliberal project. Is there not a hidden purpose in the fact that the human sciences have been relegated to a secondary position? Don’t you think that the human sciences must have a prominent place in universities to train the intellectual elite of tomorrow who will play a leading role in the struggles for an emancipated society?
A system that views education as vocational training for future cogs in the wheel is bound to fail in the 21st century. The human sciences and Humanities in general, which include the so-called soft sciences of sociology, political science, psychology, along with interdisciplinary fields of philosophy, history, arts, and media studies ought to be as important as any other specialties that college students undertake. Whether it is a STEM field or Accounting, critical thinking, moral philosophy, and history must be in their curriculum and not as appendixes but as core subjects. We have a huge deficit of intellectualism in the universities and that was by design. The power elite had decided that a populace that can think for itself and is college educated will want to make changes to society with a democratic mindset. They were not wrong. But they also have dug a huge hole for themselves by training college students into non-critical thinkers who only follow guidelines. The ways in which the pandemic is being managed, discussed, and planned for is in fact insane. I am reminded of what Bill Gates told Wired magazine in a recent interview. He described how there was a meeting where Francis Collins, Tony Fauci, and he attended a meeting with Donald Trump’s staff about the pandemic, and they had no data about anything. When Gates and others would say, “But wait a minute, that’s not real data,” they’d say, “Look, Trump told you, you have to sit and listen, so just shut up and listen anyway.” 40+ years of systemic anti-intellectualism has given us Trump and a collective incompetence from people with many college degrees but no access to critical thinking and moral philosophy of any kind. We have brilliant Techies who can create very complex apps and write amazing algorithms but have no idea about the ethical implications of what they produce. Is there any wonder why the Tech giants continue making systems that are designed to manipulate us into becoming mindless mice in mazes?
Indeed, we are in dire need of a revolution in our educational system that puts the business of thinking at its core and the learner is at its center. The good news is that some countries have started to figure this out. Finland comes to mind. But also, in the US, when I work with doctoral students in education the discussions hover around what I discussed above. We have a background in what good pedagogy can be like with John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Maxine Greene, Henry Giroux, Bill Ayers, to name a few. There are countless of teachers and scholars who have excellent ideas about bringing the humanities out of the margins and onto the main page of education. It can be done, and I am optimistic that it will be done. Long ago, reading Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, I learned to adopt a mindset that has the pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will at its center. We need a political will by the masses to want to make this world a better place in order to make fundamental changes. Business as usual ala Neoliberalism will not cut it, as folks who are educating themselves are waking up to. Now, we need to bring back that type of education into our classrooms.
Through its consumerist policies, the capitalist system has had a devastating effect on the planet. In your opinion, shouldn’t environmental issues, such as global warming, be placed at the heart of our concerns? Don’t you think we need to go beyond the capitalist system to solve the problems related to the climate disaster? Doesn’t the capitalist system dig the grave of planet Earth?
The number one greatest existential threat in our lives is Climate change with its devastating effects. The Green New Deal, as proposed by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and others is something we must embrace as an urgent main agenda and not a topic to give notes to the imperial gatherings such as the G8 summit. Just the other day, an ice shelf in Canada severed and drifted into the Arctic sea. The piece that broke off was around 80 square kilometers — larger than the 60-square-kilometer Manhattan, New York. The scientists are studying the impact of this separation and looking into its root causes, which is of course part of the global warming caused by human activity via manufacturing of consumer goods and transporting the useless goods around the globe so you and I could go to Amazon and get the latest version of electronic shoe shine machine made in China with cheap labor and a 100% mark up.
Again, this will have to be a grassroots movement and not a top-down G8 policy. I support the activist mindset of Generation Z kid such as Greta Thunberg who are sick and tired of the empty promises given to them and the Millennials about “fixing the environment.” We have to adopt a paradigm that recognizes that there is unity in our ecosystem. It isn’t about the environment plus humanity, and we are not the overlords of the planet. The Coronavirus Covid-19 is making that abundantly clear. We are all part of the unity. The whole will always be larger than the sum of its parts. Once a critical mass understands this fact of the universe we will see action toward reversing the ill effects of human caused climate change.
We saw with the Snowden case that we live in a world under surveillance, under the control of a 1% oligarchy that has decided to monitor the entire planet with mass espionage. Don’t you think we live in a fascist system? In your opinion, why do the media turn a blind eye to these abuses on the part of occult agencies acting outside the law? Can we still talk about democracy?
I don’t think we live in a fascist system, though proto fascism is pushing forward and there is a serious danger of a coalition fascism becoming the dominant way of governing here and elsewhere in the world. I will continue supporting a democratic socialism that is designed to produce egalitarianism in societies. Right now, there is a push back against fascism on a global scale. Even in places such as Israel where we have seen protests against Netanyahu and his fascist policies against Palestinians and the left in Israel. But at the same time white nationalists are also emboldened these days. It is a dialectical situation. It is existential, to be sure.
We’ve seen the assassination of George Floyd and its global impact. How do you explain the fact that in countries that call themselves democracies there are racist crimes committed by police officers?
Any proto-fascist system of power would, of course, want to have a monopoly on violence by its police force. The Orwellian notion of law and order is embedded in such systems. The question is who’s laws and who’s orders?
What do folks mean when they say, “defund the police”. It means reallocate resources to agencies that are better equipped to handle and prevent certain societal problems. We have a serious societal problem known as racism, which is institutional and deeply cultural. The police are not equipped to “fix” this problem. Many police officers take racist actions without knowing that they are being racist. They are trained to be enforcers of “law and order.” And if the system tells them Black and Brown folks are the criminals, the undocumented immigrants are “illegal,” assuming they have a duty to carry out the “law and order” policies, they will act violently toward those deemed as dangerous to the status qua of law and order. This has to change and movements such as Black Lives Matter are in existence to propel change.
You’re working on a book project. Can you tell us about it?
Thank you for asking. I am writing a book that has been in progress for several years. This book is an interdisciplinary examination of what it means to be human in the 21st century. My working title is Deus Ex Machina: The Paradox of Being Human. Back in 5th century BC the Greeks invented a dramatic device to fix their plot problems during their plays. The deus ex machina (god from the machine) was named for the convention of the god’s appearing in the sky, an effect achieved by a crane (Greek: mēchanē). This technique was used in famous plays such as Sophocles’ Philoctetes. The solution was known as divine intervention and the audiences loved it. Today, we live in an age where reality is produced through the prism of high technology and sophisticated AI driven media and when there is a problem in their lives, be it personal or societal, they expect those technologies to intervene divinely and fix it. In other words, to quote developmental psychologist Shirley Turkle, “we expect more from technology than humanity.” The fact of the matter is that we cannot create an APP to fix world hunger, racism, economic inequality, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and climate crisis. These are problems we must tackle through humanistic solidarity. Humans must work together to solve the world’s problems. We cannot sit back and expect AI and techies to come up with a dues ex machina and suddenly bring world peace and prosperity for all. So, my book looks at various humanistic phenomena and I try to look at humanity through a combination of lenses that are philosophical, scientific, historical, and above all moralistic. For me, there are no boundaries between disciplines of knowledge. In other words, knowledge is a seamless web.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Dr. Tony Kashani?
Tony Kashani is an American author, educator, philosopher of technology, and a cultural critic. He was born in Tehran to Azerbaijani parents, an ethnic minority in Iran. He grew up speaking Farsi and Turkish, and after migrating at the critical age of fifteen to his adopted home of California, English became his primary language of intellectualism. Speaking three languages and being aware of three distinctly different cultures at once gave Kashani the impetus to seek a philosophy of cosmopolitanism, where one embraces all cultures and is at ease in most countries in the world. He received his bachelor’s degree in radio and television and later his master’s degree in cinema studies from San Francisco State University. He holds a PhD degree in Humanities with emphasis on culture studies from California Institute of Integral Studies. His writing, teaching, and intellectual activism are anchored in critical theory and pedagogy, influenced by writers such as Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Camus, and Steinbeck, and thinkers such as Fredrick Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, Paulo Ferrier, Edward Said, Henry Giroux, John Dewey, Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky, Erich Fromm, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. Kashani is the author of five books in Humanities: Deconstructing the Mystique, (2005, 2009, Kendall/Hunt Press), Hollywood’s Exploited: Public Pedagogy, Corporate Movies, and Cultural Studies (2010, Palgrave/MacMillan Press), Lost in Media: Ethics of Everyday Life (2013, Peter Lang Press) and Movies Change Lives: A Pedagogy of Humanistic Transformation (Peter Lang Press, 2016). His chapter on Critical Media Literacy in the 3 volume Handbook of Critical Pedagogy (2020, Sage Publications) is a deliberation on impact of new media on the human condition. Kashani is a subject matter expert and faculty, for several universities in the United States, focusing his interdisciplinary scholarship and pedagogy on humanities in the digital age and social justice. He is an advocate of global diversity. On that topic he writes:
“Given that we live in the planetary age where we find ourselves interconnected and, in many ways, interdependent with one another on a global scale, there exist various conditions between the “self” and the “other.” I am sensitive to and take great care to pay attention to the reality of diversity in the planetary context. If the self builds solidarity with the other harmony is achieved and we can all live at ease with while engaging differences. This requires sound ethics of virtue, mainly courage and compassion.”
Presently, Dr. Kashani is completing his latest book (Deus Ex Machina) manuscript on the paradox of being human in the digital age. On a personal side, he is a practicing Black Belt in Karate and as a student of Zen philosophy believes in balancing his life with mindfulness to result in a harmonious mind/body/spirit existence. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dr. Kashani’s personal website is www.tonykashani.com
His podcast address (also available on iTunes and Apple Podcasts) is www.techumanity.online
Published in American Herald Tribune August 22, 2020: https://ahtribune.com/interview/4361-dr-tony-kashani.html
In Palestine Solidarité: https://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.230820.htm
In La Tribune Diplomatique Internationale: https://tribune-diplomatique-internationale.com/dr-_tony_kashanietats_unisdemocratie_la_plus_richeinegalitesoligarques/