The Phoenix in Conversation with Author and Activist Naomi Klein

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

After writer and activist Naomi Klein gave the last lecture in Swarthmore’s “South Africa to Gaza: World History and the Politics of Accountability” series, she spoke to The Phoenix about the Israel-Gaza violence, the media, academia, climate, economics, and politics. Below is an edited transcript:

Daniel Perrin: Much of what you do as a thinker and a writer involves the media; there’s been a lot of talk about how the media in both America and Israel fits into the devastating violence that’s going on in the Middle East, and there’s been criticism of outlets from all sides of the conflict for certain portrayals and styles of coverage on Israel-Gaza. I’m wondering about your thoughts on the current state of journalism on this issue, but also beyond.

Naomi Klein: It’s interesting because, in my latest book, I spend a lot of time critiquing what social media has done to us in negative ways and looking at what it does to our sense of identity when we’re constantly performing a sort of doppelganger of ourselves online. I think in moments of rupture, and cataclysm as we have been in and are in, we see another side of social media: the promise of it. That’s in terms of creating these lines of communication across borders, where people can speak for themselves that can reach audiences and people directly, and form parasocial relationships with people whose stories are very different from theirs. I’m thinking of some of the extraordinary journalism of Palestinian citizen journalists. I think if it were not for social media, we would just be at the mercy of [mainstream corporate press]. We have Al Jazeera, and Al Jazeera has been incredibly important, which is why Israel is banning it. But one of the things I think is culpable from the mainstream corporate press is how little they talk about the fact that they’re not allowed into Gaza as independent journalists. Like, why is that? This is a slaughter that is being funded with U.S. tax dollars and U.S. weapons, and why is it that Israel can [keep the press out]? No Israeli journalist can get into Gaza unless they go around the Arab side and it happens very, very rarely. I was in Gaza in 2009 and I went through the process of getting press accreditation. And I was struck when I came back to Israel, that I knew more than most Israeli journalists. And so why are we just taking for granted that it’s okay to just seal in a warzone? Why can’t journalists go in, not embedded with the [Israel Defense Forces (IDF)], not with conditions, but doing their jobs? 

I also think that there’s been a huge moral failure of solidarity with the Palestinian journalists who have been killed in record numbers. It’s a little bit like what I talked about last night. I think our universities are also morally culpable in failing to speak out for our fellow scholars or the right to an education, or the fact that Palestine is experiencing what was being called scholasticide: the systematic destruction of the entire education system at every level from elementary to postsecondary. Every university has been targeted and almost all of them are in ruins: archives, book publishing, etc. It is the destruction of the ability to produce knowledge, the ability to learn. So, all of us, whether we work in education or journalism, have a responsibility to express basic solidarity in the face of what is clearly a targeted attempt to destroy Palestinian presence in Gaza. That’s one of the things that I’ve really been horrified by, but I guess not surprised, because I think we’ve seen smaller-scale versions of this when Al Jazeera journalists have been targeted. There wasn’t the kind of level of solidarity that there should have been. In terms of content, are there specific pieces of coverage that you’re thinking about?

DP: Well, there’s been a lot of outrage from pro-Palestinian groups about the portrayals and the wording of passive voice in the New York Times, and there’s also been criticism on the other side of controversy surrounding opinion pieces and portrayals of the violence of Oct. 7 from the more pro-Israel side. I’d love to get your sense as a media figure about your perspective on that.

NK: I think the New York Times in particular has failed yet another test. And I say yet another because those of us of a certain age can remember when they helped build the case for the invasion of Iraq. They were supposed to have learned from that, and they have instead once again, prioritized access, prioritized Israeli talking points. And I’m not sure their reputation can recover from that. It’s not only the Gettleman story claiming that there was a systemic pattern of sexual violence being used as a tool, it’s not to say whether or not it happened, I think sexual violence did happen. But that’s different than saying that there was a pattern. They haven’t walked it back and they clearly were on a mission. They had an agenda. That was very damaging. Some of this has to do with access. It’s easy to find people from Kibbutz Be’eri, and they’ll tell you a very, very sad story. But if you can’t go into Gaza, then what do you do with that? What do you do with the fact that you actually don’t have the tools to do that kind of journalism? Well, one of the things you can do is scream bloody murder about why you can’t go to Gaza, because why should we accept that?

DP: Building on that note, how can various kinds of institutions all the way from small colleges like Swarthmore to some of the biggest players in national politics, promote and facilitate the strong civil discourse and conversation that is needed while also balancing the very real emotional ties that people have to the devastation in Palestine and Gaza? How can that balance happen? Can it happen? Should that happen?

NK: Part of the complexity in the sense of injustice of this moment is who is allowed to grieve, who is allowed to have an emotional reaction? Just a lot of people openly called for genocidal action after Oct 7. And if you try to hold those people accountable, they say, “Oh, I was upset, you know, I was emotional. I had family there.” And yet, Palestinians are never afforded the right to grieve in public or the right to have an emotional reaction. Look, I think this level of atrocity with the slaughter of children, the dismemberment, the fact that we are seeing it, that we’re hearing the testimony: I’ve never experienced anything like this. I think the idea that we would witness it and that it would not evoke strong emotion, I mean, why would that be true? What is more emotional than genocide? So, I think we have to figure out how to have some containers for people to grieve, to have space where it’s okay to feel. I feel like that generally though. I generally feel like we don’t have enough space.

DP: There have been a lot of protests calling for endowments to divest from companies that are involved with the IDF or identified as contributing to violence in Gaza. I’m wondering about your thoughts on the role of these demands for divestment in the larger protests for Palestinian rights and liberation. And beyond divestment, what are your thoughts on the responsibilities that individual institutions like Swarthmore have?

NK: Well, I think we are all directly involved. A huge part of the moral rupture of this moment is that people are trying to live with the fact that they are witnessing a horror like they have never seen before, and we know that we are not just spectators in this; That it’s our money, our vetoes at the United Nations. The people who claim to represent us are sending the bombs and are creating the diplomatic space for these atrocities to occur. And it’s still happening. So faced with that, what do we do? What do we do as moral people? The way I see divestment is as a people’s foreign policy or a foreign policy from below. So that we aren’t just saying, “Well, what do we do? Both parties support this, there’s nothing we can do.” That can give way to nihilism, a sense of helplessness, or depression… or we can try to affect change. We can try to find some levers, some places where we can apply power. 

I was an undergraduate at the tail end of the divestment movement from South Africa. It was the first protest I ever went to. We occupied the office of the president of my university, the University of Toronto. This was 1989, so there had been decades of divestment organizing. And I was of the lucky generation that pushed the door and it opened after so many people pushing and pushing who seemed to get no move from it. I think in part, this is kind of why I continue to believe in organizing, because I think I got a rosy view. But, it was that moment after decades of a liberation movement and utter intransigence from our political elites and our universities continuing to invest in companies that were invested in South Africa, and then suddenly everything started changing very, very quickly. Companies were pulling out. Other companies were saying, “You have to level the playing ground,” and it created internal pressure in South Africa for their business elites to say, “this isn’t tenable anymore.” And there were elections within a couple of years. So I think it can change things, I don’t think it’s just symbolic. I believe that divestment policies are part of a people’s foreign policy that can trickle up to actual sanctions from governments and that we should do it.

DP: Recent months have brought new discussions on what Judaism looks like in the U.S. and around the world. What do you, as a Jewish voice who has long been critical of Israel and in support of campaigns like the [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)] movement, notice about Judaism at this moment? And what do you say to Jews who are horrified by Israel’s brutality but are also concerned about the rising rates of antisemitism, or maybe are having a tougher time leaving what they’ve been taught all their life?

NK: I think it’s really important that we are able to distinguish discomfort from discrimination and unsafety. I think there’s discrimination, I think there are real antisemitic attacks. But I think a lot of what gets called antisemitism is discomfort, or somebody coming face to face with a worldview that challenges their own worldview, and challenges a worldview that is absolutely enmeshed in their sense of identity vulnerability because the story of Zionism is completely entangled with a history of Jewish trauma, a narrative that Jews will never be safe unless there is this state, and unless that state can be a Jewish majority, and positions itself as the insurance plan for when the world turns against us once again. So we have to understand that that is an extremely emotional story. So when you see a Palestinian flag or you hear a chant “from the river to the sea,” you’re gonna have an emotional reaction. But it’s not because of the flag and it’s not because of the chants, it’s because of the story. I think that there have to be spaces where we work through this. And some of them should be Jewish spaces, because I don’t think that we should be expecting Palestinians, who are coping with a completely different level of lack of safety and trauma, to be watching us process our Jewish day school education in public. I think that there are different spaces for different activities.

DP: Building on these topics, and taking it to a more political lens: What do you say to people who are horrified by the Biden administration’s enabling of Israel, but are cognizant of there only being two viable candidates for president, and that the alternative to Biden would be even more enabling of Israel, while also rolling back people’s rights and the progress that has been made on other issues of the environment, infrastructure, healthcare, etc?

NK: I think the Democrats have put people in an absolutely untenable position. I’m not somebody who believes there’s no difference between parties. But I think that what you’re seeing in Gaza is fascism at work. It’s the result of a logic that holds one group of people’s lives to be much more precious and important than another group of people’s lives. They have identified a group of people as a demographic threat to their national project. And this genocidal violence is the logical conclusion of that ideology which is a supremacist ideology, even though it comes from trauma. The Democrats’ line of, “a vote for Trump is a vote for fascism” or “listen, he sounds like Hitler,” starts to fall apart when people see something that is not a possible fascism, but actually is a repeat. So, I blame the Democrats for that. I think the uncommitted movements have been really important in sending a message, but I can’t remember an election in my lifetime that has ever been as morally impossible as this one. And whatever happens, what I’ll say is that it’s not the fault of people who can’t bring themselves to vote for somebody who supported genocide. It’s the fault of the people who supported the genocide and I say that as somebody who believes things will get much worse with Trump. Much worse. But I just want to keep the conversation clear on why we are where we are, right? It’s not because people care and they can’t bring themselves to do it. So I’m not giving election advice. I’m supporting squad members, that’s all I’m doing this election cycle. I live in Canada now. I’m a U.S. citizen, a dual citizen, but I’m supporting squad members who are facing [American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)] money, and I’ll do fundraisers for them and stuff like that.

DP: In “Doppelganger,” you write about the fragmentation of society and politics into mirror worlds. As someone who originally dropped out of college, but is now a professor at multiple colleges, what do you see as the role of academia in this social fragmentation process? And what do you think that academic institutions can be doing to continue to educate and produce knowledge in a time of massive distrust, polarization, and societal segregation?

NK: It’s interesting because we’ve talked about how universities are siloed and how every grant is to encourage building across disciplines, but it happens too little, and I think the moment that we’re in is so urgent with these overlapping and intersecting crises of inequality and militarism and ecological crisis that it does call for every tool of intellectual toolbox. It calls for a level of synthesis that no one discipline can marshal on its own. You have different faculties competing with one another for undergraduates. There are all of these built-in disincentives to doing the thing that everybody says they want to do, which is cross-disciplinary work that bridges these divides.

Part of what’s nice for me about my role at the University of British Columbia is that half my time is co-leading a research center for climate justice and it is cross-disciplinary. It’s a magnet for people in every department and faculty who see their work as being a piece of the climate justice puzzle. Out of our conversations, we’re starting to map a way to engage with this moment of overlapping crises, and like what I was talking about last night of the long arc of fascism, mapping this moment back to the Inquisition, the settler colonial foundations of our own state, the inspiration that the European fascists took from settler colonialism, the passing of the baton to the young Zionist state. And also understanding how these deep economic injustices that are the product of those earlier violent spasms that were all really about pillaging resources, create the fortress borders that today are the primary responses to the climate crisis, being we’re just gonna lock people out. So I think this work is so big that it’s only work that we can do collectively. But it is true that I’m always amazed by the extent to which the academy disincentivizes collective work. It’s very individualistic, like “publish or perish,” and so I just ignore it all. I’m lucky because I did have a very untraditional routine.

DP: In “This Changes Everything,” you write about the climate crisis under capitalism. Obviously, we’re now seeing and we’ve been seeing devastating impacts of global warming and we still have massive levels of pollution around the world. But there also have been some shifts in policy and potential sources of hope, both in the U.S. and abroad. And I wanted to ask what your thoughts are on the current moment of the climate crisis and how things have changed or not changed since 2014 when the book came out.

NK: I mean, the news is mostly not good. I teach a course called “The Climate Emergency” and we update it every year and not many of the updates are positive, although there were some important victories under the Biden Administration, including the pause on pending approvals of] liquified natural gas (LNG) exports as probably the most significant one, just in terms of emissions.

DP: More significant than the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)?

NK: The IRA is this subtraction piece, but the LNG is about adding, where it’s still a legacy of this all-of-the-above-energy policy that Obama talked about that doesn’t actually work like that. Yes, you can put solar panels but if you’re increasing your infrastructure for fossil fuel extraction, it’s not actually going to get us to the right places. What I was gonna say is, it is the most significant victory, but on the other hand, there was a massive acceleration in the build-up of LNG that was just outrageous and continues to be. So I think that one of the biggest changes since I wrote “This Changes Everything,” which came out a decade ago. There really wasn’t an intersectional climate movement. There was an environmental justice movement, a small climate justice movement. But most of the left was ignoring the climate. Most racial justice discussions never mentioned climate. It was only subgroups that talked about the intersection of climate and racial justice. Now, every mass movement on the left understands that climate overlays all of it, and also understands that in mapping a future that might be livable [and] that might be equitable, the transition to a post-extractive economy is central to that. So I take hope in that. I think it has yet to yield policy shifts that we can measure in emissions, and we do need that. But I think intellectually, there’s been a huge shift in terms of the left actually understanding that this is necropolitics.

DP: You’re also well known for writing on economic trends and movements. “The Shock Doctrine” talked about political shock therapy to implement neoliberal policy. You’ve also written about a pandemic Shock Doctrine. What are your thoughts on the strange economic moment that we’re in where there’s widespread economic anxiety and growing attention to corporate influence and abuse after a massively influential pandemic?

NK: What I write about in “Doppelganger” is that the extreme pandemic profiteering that took place, the increase in economic inequality, and just the extreme stratification of wealth were not addressed enough by the left. Yes, okay, we’ve got some positive economic indicators, but mostly that maps to elites having obscene amounts of money. Mostly it’s been the Steve Bannons of the world or the Giorgia Melonis of the world or other far-right, neo-fascist figures who have capitalized on that. One bright spot I see is Shawn Fain of the United Auto Workers (UAW) who has a left populist discourse. So, how to fight conspiracy culture? More Shawn Fain. 

Having spent a fair bit of time immersed in right-wing, neo-fascist discourse, it is striking to me how much parts of it borrow from an anti-corporate critique that is very familiar to me, and then mixes it and pivots from it because it’s not actually going to deliver on any taking on of corporate power. But it taps into the rage and the righteous rage, the sense of injustice, and then says now we’re gonna go after the immigrants or trans bathrooms or whatever.

DP: To me, that seems to be the biggest trademark of the Trump era of the Republican Party, taking on the populist urge and exploiting it for far-right ideas.

NK: When you listen to Bannon as much as I have — which is like, too much — it’s a very internationalist space. When he left the White House, he really devoted himself to building what he calls a nationalist international, so there’s something kind of funny and eerie about the fact that his show is more international than MSNBC in the sense of actually being in conversation with other far-right movements in Italy, and Spain, Brazil, and China.

DP: Your books discuss some of the most overwhelming challenges and dilemmas of our time. What do you advise for a generation of young people that’s frustrated by violence, climate disasters, income inequality, and more and overwhelmed about trying to help in the face of massive barriers to access to democracy and to politics?

NK: One of the things that I write about in “Doppelganger” is this era that I think is now over where there was a lot of head patting of activism and a lot of posturing of solidarity from the powerful with social movements. It was a very shallow solidarity. It was very performative. But it did create an era of celebrity activism, where a few people would be lifted out and be made the poster children of the #resistance or the climate movement or Black Lives Matter (BLM), and I think that that was very corrosive to social movements. It became clear that this is a problem with leadership by social media. It doesn’t have any mechanisms for accountability. If the UAW members don’t like what Shawn Fain is doing, they can vote him out, but you can’t do that with social media. All you can do is tear them down in a really ugly way.

I think we’re in another moment now where left activism is not getting magazine covers and celebration from institutions. It’s getting the NYPD called, and congressional investigations. So, frankly, I think that means it’s onto something. I think getting backlash doesn’t always mean you’re right, but in this case, it means there is a closeness to the fire at the center of it all, particularly in making these connections with decolonial movements around the world, and challenging racial capitalism around the world. And if you look at some of the fiercest pushback on Gaza, it is not directly at Palestinians. It’s the nodes of solidarity. It’s BLM supporting Palestine. It’s the broadening that I think is behind the Zionist project. 

I think that’s why we’re seeing this pushback, and why the era of celebrated left activism seems to have come to a close. And this is high-stakes stuff. So my only advice is — I know it sounds really trite — that the movements that are arrayed against these many forces need cultures of care, and even some joy within them, to sustain people because they’re not being sustained by things outside of them. And they’re taking a lot of wildfire. It’s important to recognize that people are carrying a huge amount of stress and trauma and that there’s a natural tendency at a moment like that, especially when you feel very powerless and unlistened to by the people you want to listen to you — like your government or your university administration — to turn towards somebody who you know you can affect, which is like the person next to you in the room. That’s a very old left story, but I think the stakes are very high in not having a toxic left culture. So I just hope that, as much as possible, we’re able to take seriously the need to build movements that people can stay in their whole lives. I’ve been on the left for quite a while, and I wouldn’t be able to do that if I didn’t have a community of people who bring me a ton of joy and take care of me, who I take care of, and who I know I can trust.

DP: In a highly politicized culture, where it seems incredibly difficult to get people to change their minds even when exposed to new information, how have you seen your role as a thinker and a writer change? What types of information or perspectives do you look for that have changed your mind in the past and continue to change it today?

NK: Whenever there’s a rupture, there’s also a rupture in one’s own mind where you realize you don’t have all of the information that you need to understand the moment. The way I always describe this state of shock is as a gap between an event and a narrative that explains that event. So there’s always tension because these are moments when you have to act, but it’s also a moment when you need to read and learn. My talk was full of citations of thinkers who have really influenced me in this moment. There are others who I would cite, like Sherene Seikaly

at UC Santa Barbara, who writes and speaks really powerfully about the intersection of Palestinian cataclysm and the climate crisis. I’ve learned a lot from listening to her. I learned a lot from Michael Rothberg, who writes about multidirectional memory, and how to bring different traumas into conversation with one another. I’m reading a lot about trauma right now because I think I need a psychoanalytic lens for my own shock that my own people could be behaving in this way. So I’ve been reading Dominic Capra on that, and I love Jacqueline Rose’s writing on psychoanalysis and Zionism. 

But in terms of how my own role has changed, partly, I made a decision six years ago to take the professorship at Rutgers and UBC. That was also a decision to stop leading a certain kind of life of just being on an endless speaking tour and to start being able to invest in a particular community of scholars and students in a more long-term way, as opposed to just being the person who just comes in and leaves. I used to do that all the time. So I do a lot of zooming and things like that, but just geographically, because I’ve chosen to live somewhere pretty remote, I can’t just jet off and do that. So, I think that that’s been the biggest change for me. I started to feel that there was a kind of a skimming-the-surface nature to being that type of person who just speaks all the time because that doesn’t leave a lot of time for listening.

DP: Any last thoughts for the Swarthmore community?

NK: From what I’ve seen, this is a very special place. I knew that before I came here, because so many great activists have come out of Swarthmore. I just actually heard from the [Executive Director] of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Stefanie Fox, who was like, “OMG, that’s my alma mater,” and a lot of my friends in the fossil fuel divestment movement. You’re doing something right here and one of the things that I saw from afar that was moving was the way that so many groups from so many different sectors and identity groups are signing on to different statements. That sort of broad-based building of coalitions is really smart and needed, and none of that happens without conversations and relationships. With this [South Africa to Gaza] series, I know that there’s a lot of frustration with the administration about the treatment of students and it sounds legitimate to me, but don’t take for granted that you’re able to have a series like this. None of the people who’ve been part of this series are known for mincing words. A lot of campuses would have canceled a series like this or not had it. And so, we just have to speak into the silence. If we feel afraid, that’s probably because it needs to be said. Now, we need to say it with care. But, a lot of people are lapsing into silence and self-censoring and that’s what we don’t hear about when we hear about the canceled offense and this person getting fired. I think the Swarthmore community really seems to be doing a great job of speaking into that silence, and overriding that impulse and insisting on speaking. What we see when we do that is that the world doesn’t end, and we can actually handle it, and we can even handle some disagreement.

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