History and the people who make it: David Barsamian

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.This is the 28th in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida, continuing last issue’s Barsamian interview.David Barsamian was interviewed by Paul Ortiz [O] and Matthew Simmons [S] in 2014.The first part of this interview ran in the June 2015 issue of The Gainesville Iguana.

B: I was a terrible student. I hated school. I was a model student through elementary school and from 7th, 8th grade on, I went down the tubes. I barely graduated from high school. I had to go to summer school and make up classes so I could get the lowest possible graduation diploma that New York City schools give.

I managed to get into San Francisco State for a year, but I hated that too and dropped out. Then I went to Asia and that’s really where my second life begins.

I’m compressing a lot here. But I wind up in India and become the disciple of a master musician. I learned sitar. I’m exposed to some of the greatest musicians and cultural figures, poets, and others in India, and that’s enriched my life enormously. I’m still connected to that culture even though I can’t go back to India now because I’ve been banned for my work on Kashmir and other issues.

I did well in classes I was interested in, like English and history, and the others I just play[ed] hooky. I’d get on the bus in the morning and go to Times Square. You could see three movies for ninety-nine cents. I’d sit through three movies, come back home, and my mother would say, how was school today? Oh fine, no problem. Then the teachers would send notes: we haven’t seen David in weeks; is he okay? I’d intercept those notes. I’d forge my mother’s signature. The first maybe criminal act I did, I started forging notes saying that David’s been under the weather and couldn’t come in, but everything’s fine now.

O: What went wrong, David?

B: No, I say, what went right! I did not subordinate myself to superior authority. I was a rebel from the get-go, my politics come from a very early age. I was writing letters to the New York Daily News and the New York Post. I was a big fan of Adlai Stevenson. I supported his election in 1952. He lost. I would write very strong letters and I would always include a PS, [saying] you don’t have the courage to publish this, but I’m writing it anyway. And they’d publish ’em.

O: How old were you when you started writing these letters?

B:I think seven or eight. I started subscribing to magazines: Newsweek, Esquire, Time, Popular Mechanics. I was so happy to see my name on a label, that things were coming to my home in this mailbox at 521 East 87th Street with my name. Like, it was affirmation of existence: wow, I’m being acknowledged.

The public library, the Webster Branch was on York Avenue and 78th Street. I loved going there – not only did it have books and was well-lit, it had no roaches. Our walk-up apartment was full of roaches, these little creatures scurrying around, driving me crazy.

The library was a refuge. It was quiet, nobody spoke in Armenian. I was absorbing everything that I could possibly absorb, reading things I didn’t know what the words meant.

Reader’s Digest had a vocabulary quiz in every issue and I would try and learn all the words, write them down, use them in sentences. I was trying to educate myself outside the formal school system.

The neighborhood I grew up in was primarily Central European. It was known as Germantown. There were many immigrants from Poland, Hungary, what was then Czechoslovakia, Austria, obviously Germany. I would walk down 86th Street, hearing German. It was the common link language between a lot of these immigrant groups. There were very few Armenian families. It was also heavily Catholic, almost all the kids went to parochial school.

It was a very racist neighborhood. They didn’t know anything about Armenians. I would be called Albanian or Argentinian or—they just didn’t have a clue where Armenia was, what its history was.

It was pretty rough, in terms of intolerance. These Catholic kids—I hate to stereotype or paint with a broad brush—were extremely racist and very narrow-minded, super-patriotic; many of them joined the military as soon as they could. At that time, when you were seventeen, you could go to the military recruiting office and say, I wanna go into the army right now. A lot of them wound up in the army, police, fire department, those kinds of jobs.

S: That kind of über patriotism, how did that influence your developing political ideology?

B: I was very skeptical about authority and power, and felt that powerful institutions lie to people. We see that today very graphically: long denials of spying and wiretapping and intercepting of emails.

A very formative experience was what happened to the Brooklyn Dodgers. New York at that time had three major league baseball teams: the Yankees, the Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. I was a fanatical Dodgers fan. My two older brothers, one was a Giants fan, and the other was a Yankees fan. So I had to be different.

Now the Dodgers were quite successful. They won the World Series in 1955. The team was bought by a banker, Walter F. O’Malley, and shortly after the Dodgers won the World Series, we started reading reports in the papers: the owner is not happy. He wants a new stadium. He wants the city to build new parking garages, the kind of socialism for the rich that exists only in the United States. O’Malley said, if you don’t do this, we’re leaving Brooklyn. We’re leaving New York.

Robert F. Wagner, the mayor, I remember him giving press conferences saying, don’t worry, the Dodgers moving out of New York, impossible, it’ll never happen in a thousand years. Then one day, there’s the Daily News headline: “Dodgers Move to L.A.” That was very revealing to me about the duplicity of politicians, number one, and the predatory nature of capitalism.

O’Malley was making a lot of money. The team was very successful and very popular in Brooklyn, but he had a chance to make more money in Los Angeles.

That was a big learning experience about truthfulness and about the real loyalty of capitalism is to capital. It’s not communities, it’s not to countries, families, or individuals; it is to capital. I never had to read Marx or Hegel or Engels to understand this essence of the capitalist system, which is constantly trying to gain more and more profits.

S: I wanna get back [to] your relationships with these people that you’ve interviewed such as Edward Said, Howard Zinn.

B: I think my connection with Chomsky leads to all of these others. I knew about him back in the ’60s, even when I was in India. When I returned to the United States, around 1970, I started reading a lot more. Then I moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 1978 and got involved in the community radio station there, KGNU.

I was reading a book of Chomsky’s called “The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism.” It’s a two-volume set, a remarkable piece of scholarship, and I got very excited. I wrote Chomsky a fan letter. To my surprise, he wrote back. I was quite taken with that. So I wrote another letter and we started a correspondence.

Meanwhile, my radio skills were becoming more sophisticated and I said, let’s do an interview. He agreed, and the thirtieth anniversary of that interview is coming up. We’re going to be doing an event in Boston to mark that, he and I.

He’s eighty-five years old now; I just saw him in early February. We did an almost three hour interview. We’ve done eight or nine or 10 books together. I could not believe that this voice could not be heard in the United States. I thought, whoa! He should be readily available. But he was not. That was the main impetus to start Alternative Radio.

During this period I was reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and I contacted Zinn. Whenever I said the name Chomsky, was like open-sesame, abracadabra. The oceans would part, the curtains would open. That was my entré to Edward Said and Howard Zinn, and Iqbal Ahmed.

After years of doing radio and journalism, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation, too. I’ve gotten to know a lot of other people like Arundhati Roy and Vandana Shiva, Tariq Ali, people from different parts of South Asia and West Asia.

Everyone is different to interview. There’s no set way, one thing that I could say about a particular person. Noam has a lot to say: he’s very loquacious, he’s extremely knowledgeable. So one has to be very aggressive to limit him to a reasonable answer. Otherwise, you realize after an hour that you’re still on question two and running out of time.

Howard Zinn was very jovial, very amiable, a lovable man, enormous good humor, full of all of the best qualities of socialism: egalitarianism and solidarity. And in that—in Chomsky too—is something quite remarkable. He will treat you, let’s say, an average person, no different from a multiple Nobel Prize laureate. He won’t give special attention to that Nobel Prize winner over you. I’ve seen many examples of that.

He treats people very decently, as equals, and is very kind and gentle and will hear people out, will entertain the most absurd questions and try to formulate an answer.

Edward Said—kind of different background. He’s very suave, and debonair, a very classy dresser, very intimidating. He said something like, I hope you have good questions. With the implication being that if you don’t, I’m out of here, don’t waste my time. You could see this tremendous intellectual energy there. So I started talking about Palestinian poetry and a particular poet that he liked, Mahmoud Darwish, and that kind of softened him up. It was through that cultural angle that I got into the political with him.

Iqbal Ahmed of Pakistan was also a close friend, very influential on Edward Said’s political development. He also had great knowledge of West Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. So I had access to these wonderful founts of information and insight and knowledge. I feel like I’ve gotten my education vicariously just by being with all these people and being exposed to what they know.

S: So your interviewing skills, your style, was that something that just developed organically?

B: When I was growing up, I used to listen to all the talk shows. It was the beginning of talk show radio, in the ‘50s, late night talk radio, people like Barry Gray, and I would listen to their style. Edward R. Murrow, I watched on TV, CBS Reports. I liked the way he formulated questions. Even later, I would listen to any major broadcaster to see what their style was and what I could glean from that that would work for me, and do it in a way that would feel authentic.

You have to own your style. You can’t mimic someone. I can’t say there was one single influence on me. I just started developing it. The initial interviews I did were so difficult, were so trauma-laden that everything that followed, really, was not that difficult.

See http://ufdc.ufl.edu/l/AA00031874/00001 for the full transcript of this interview.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy.SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching, and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations.

Comments are closed.