Summer Camp II: If Tony Blair Had Been Our Friend

What the US and especially George Bush needed in 2002 was a Dutch uncle, or a British Prime Minister, with the nerve to dish out some of Europe’s post-colonial wisdom about the world; to have snapped the Texas ingenu to attention with Britain’s own miserable history in Iraq between the world wars; to have pointed out the folly of the neo-conservatives’ neo-imperialism. What Bush got, alas, in Tony Blair was a shameless enabler who rationalized the route into the valley of death, his and ours.

Anthony Barnett speaks with that experienced English voice that we waited for and never heard on the way to Iraq. Barnett speaks with a certain old-fashioned, entirely un-imperial British authority as historian and cultural critic. But he’s unmistakably a modern among journalists — “one of us,” in that sense. Months before 9.11 Barnett founded the website openDemocracy “to address the need for greater democracy in global affairs by combining the best of debate with the energy and potential of the web.”

openDemocracy seized my attention with John le Carre’s historic denunciation, The United States of America Has Gone Mad from January 2003, two months before the assault on Baghdad. And I’ve been reading the openDemocracy blog pretty steadily ever since. For Americans who want an off shore reflection of ourselves in a complex world, I find openDemocracy as good as The Guardian.

So I was tickled to find the founder and editor himself, brother Barnett, in the lively circle of George Papapdreou’s friends on the island of Paros the week before last. We talk here about the general hunger these days for authenticity in reporting, for non-institutional voices of authority about the world. Barnett is a serious believer in the blog moment. I am seriously interested in an openConspiracy between Open Source and openDemocracy. In the context of global warming (main focus of the Paros gab) and many other political and planetary tests, Barnett spoke Old Europe’s view: that the US is an essential player but no longer the essential player. The war in Iraq, he argues, was meant more than anything as a bully’s demonstration of raw power — “we are the power; globalization belongs to us” — and it came acropper. Listen in, please, and respond. Shouldn’t we be working with this man?

Here’s a sample from our conversation of Barnett’s nicely nuanced definition of the Internet opportunity in what we used to call journalism. I’d asked him about the global consciousness and conversation in transformation. How does it work? We’re talking about the Internet of course?

I don’t think it’s about the Internet. I think it’s about what is true for us, and what is true for us isn’t necessarily what is obvious, and it certainly not what is put in front of us by the existing corporate media. That’s why a journalism which, you know, the classic thing: speaks truth to power, says it as it is… well, when we say these things it’s as if we know what it is, right? “I know what it’s like… I’m down here, where it is, and I can tell you what it’s like…” Well, actually, we don’t know what it’s like. All sorts of forces are at work on us. We’re quite complex interdependent human beings, and what it’s like for us in part depends on what it’s like for other people. So if you feel as I do that none of us is safe if anywhere another human being can be arbitrarily arrested or executed or locked up — none of us is safe — then our own freedom is being taken away by Guantanamo — the obvious example, but there are Guantanamo’s in China. There are different kinds of Guantanamo, some of which are less blatant. How we learn about these things? How do we then not try to take in all them where there is too much horror? Part of us is starving in Darfur. How do we manage that? This involves, if you like, the creation and the development together of what I, taking a Scottish term, call a democratic intelligence and a democratic culture. It’s that sense of being intelligent, of being quite open-minded, of not being naive, but also seeing that what you know and what you can learn about is involved with other people, and this is quite complicated. It’s fun, and in my view it’s interesting. I think it’s great that what we are isn’t simply what we know because it’s right in front of us, but involves a battle with the media which is constantly trying to seduce us — and I admit to being seduced — by the the immediate, by gratification, by sexual competititon, etcetera, etcetera. It exploits good parts of us which enjoy living and enjoy consuming and competition is just part of life, and I’m not trying to be hoity-toity about it…

Anthony Barnett in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Poseidon Hotel in Paros, July 19, 2006

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anthony Barnett (10.2 MB MP3)

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  • tarunkjuyal

    I am a regular reader of your article. And I am very impress with your blog upon Global Warming. Now I am also write a blog upon Global Warming. This blog is collection of news & reviews like the study found that global warming since 1985 has been caused neither by an increase in solar radiation nor by a decrease in the flux of galactic cosmic rays. Some researchers had also suggested that the latter might influence global warming because the rays trigger cloud formation.

  • hurley

    I like this guerilla format, with Chris reporting from the field. Barnett’s notion of the US as global Leviathan fueled by pure political id (block that metaphor!) is persuasive except to the degree that it ignores what has always seemed to me the transparent cynical calculation that led to the war: US citizens tend not to vote against their President while the nation is at war (how stale those words sound now: “vote,” “President,” “nation,” et al). A million people have died so that George Bush might be re-elected.

  • I was glad Barnett mentioned Seattle, as in the Battle in Seattle Nov-99. I feel this was a significant event that has been downplayed as much maybe even more than NYC Sept-11-01 has been played up and over played. I’ve been thinking about Seattle Nov-99 lately and appreciated what Paul Hawkin said about it.

    “I was there [Seattle] actually just to sit my butt on the street and did so. And when I left, I went back to Washington, D.C., to give a talk, and I read the Post and the New York and LA Times, and I was just appalled at the coverage. The people writing about it weren’t even there — Tom Friedman. They were writing about it from New York. And so, I wrote a piece called “N30.”


    And what I was saying is that basically the economic fundamentalism had been belled — you know, the cat of economic fundamentalism had been belled in Seattle. In other words, you could no longer, from that point on, move or go anywhere in the world without being, in a sense, addressed by the missing stakeholders to a very anti-democratic process. ~ Paul Hawkin

    I was there too and remember getting chills up my spine because I was present at such an historic event. Even in Seattle the news was all about the tear gas, the rubber bullits and the “mauraders” running around the city but really there was so much more going on, a lot I learned about after the event but I did attended some of the teach-ins and lectures (when I got tired of “maurading” around Town in my SeaTurtle Suit). There were people from all religions around the world coming together to discuss the spiritual implications of globalization. And so many other things. It was an unprecidented global coming together and it gave me HOPE. It was a remarkably hopeful event.

  • Sutter

    Hurley, that’s interesting. I always thought of the war in more explicitly Freudian terms — W looking to succeed where daddy failed. Interestingly, Bush came close to losing the election, notwithstanding his 9/11 boost, probably on account of the war. So, it’s even worse than you suggest: All these people died so W could (1) play out some personal psychodrama in which he bests his dad, and (2) get re-elected, only — like everything else he’s ever done — he failed in BOTH regards, showing himself to be vastly inferior to 41 (I never thought I’d be able to say THAT about someone) and almost blowing what would otherwise have likely been an easy victory…

  • hurley

    Sutter, Your notion of Bush as a cesspool of Freudian drives like the rest of us characteristically generous, and probably correct. But where others see a self I see a void superimposed by received notions he can barely put a name to. I doubt even his vaunted faith, though he gives a good impression of speaking in tongues. He seems to me the most inauthentic person ever to cross the public stage. “There’s no there there” beside a mean streak and a residual pea-brained opportunism traceable back to 41 and further into the illustrious family tree. He makes Babbit look like Alexander the Great, Nixon like Cronkite. He’s a useful idiot, a kind of Manchurian Candidate for the Religious Right. His psychodrama with 41 would make sense if he had a self, but I hardly see one. I’m overstating things of course, but underlying the psychodrama and the oil, and the usual bewildered speculations as to how the US got itself into this tragedy, was the simple realiization by Rove and Cheney’s, let’s say, that the easiest way to guarantee re-election, seal the deal, starve the beast, etc. was to wave the flag and start a war. But you’re right, he blew it.

  • hurley & sutter,

    to what degree may the Bush administration be a perfect embodiment/personification of our body politic? Is it possible the entire drama is a reflection/manifestation that accurately locates us as a culture?

    Wasn’t it Shakespeare that said, “we are often most critical of others for what we find most condemning in ourselves.” Does this apply in the case of the Bush administration?

  • hurley

    Scarey thought, Flow. A long time since I’ve been in the US, so I couldn’t say, though it’s worth bearing in mind the statistic that John LeCarre cited in the article Chris linked to: 88% percent of Americans were for the war in the months leading up to the invasion. The old saw has it that nations get the leaders they deserve. You tell me. Amitie.

  • Sutter

    I’d like to think this is the exception, Hurley. Even if we accept (and I do not) that Florida went for Bush in 2000, Bush only won by dint of the oddity of the Electoral College. Perhaps we got the leader that the parochial Founders, obsessed with the relative power of their big states and their small states, deserved.

    On your other point — could be. This harkens back to Nader’s claim that Bush is just a giant corporation disguised as a human being. Is he really a completely empty vessel? Maybe. Even so, the Freudian metaphor still seems to work — we’re each the hero of our own lives, however shallow they may be.

  • Wasn’t it W. C. Fields who said, “Never give a sucker an even break”? I think we are a nation of suckers – and we aren’t getting any breaks. Americans STILL think Iraq has something to do with 9-11. Bush is a sideshow freak with an Oedipal complex who is real good at selling snake oil to anti-intellectuals.

    Nobody deserves this.

  • Potter

    Great to hear sounds of the glasses and the chatter in the background of the Barnett interview.

    I am an avid fan of parachute radio. But I loved as well local reports and sounds we had from Walden (on Emerson) and Camille Paglia enthusing to Chris across another table both closer to home.

    I don’t know where John LeCarre got his statistic of 88% from. The Pew poll shows something different and more nuanced for this time period regarding public opinion. Bear in mind that the public was subject to a lot of demogoguery and outright lies by January 2003 as well.


    Poll :Public Wants Proof of Iraqi Weapons Programs Majority Says Bush Has Yet to Make the Case

    Also see this Pew poll from December 2002.

    And this one from September 2002

    I guess I think Pew polls are best.

  • Potter

    (That was funny- how did I get that smiley instead of a P ?)

  • Zeke

    Warning, off thread. flow wrote: Wasn’t it Shakespeare that said, “we are often most critical of others for what we find most condemning in ourselves.” Does this apply in the case of the Bush administration?

    This interests me because I am studying Merchant of Venice right now. I read an essay that argued that Antonio (the merchant of the title) hates Shylock not because of racism but because he sees his own worst features in the money lender. Do you have any way of checking that quote out and letting me know if it (or something similar) does in fact come from Shakespeare? Thanks.

  • hurley

    Sutter says: “I’d like to think this is the exception.” I would too, but I don’t know that experience would bear us out. The argument about people getting the leaders they deserve usually attached to Hitler and the Germans, and one has to pause at the thought of anyone deserving Hitler. However, when in living memory were we well-served by the political establishment? I can’t recall. Bush begins to seem like the extreme expression of a quite possibly terminal culmination of mass stupidity and indifference. Bush lost both elections, but just.

  • I once worked with a video instruction by Buddhist Teacher Pema Chodron on how to do a meditation technique called “Approach what you find repulsive” and a Time Magazine with Bush on the cover as “Man of the Year”. It was a lot of breathing in black oily smoke and breathing out pure air. When I got past all my crticism and ridicule what it all seemed to boil down to was bottom of the belly fear. He represented my worst fears to me. So in that sense yes, my hatered of Bush is my own worst fears. Injustice, suffering and death. If I did not have some of this in myself could I recognize it in him? Am I arrogant? Do I sneer? Am I responsible for the suffering/death of others?

  • Zeke,

    I did some searching trying to find the source for the quote referenced above. I’m drawing a big blank. It has been several years since I read Shakespeare (about 20), I will continue looking.

    In the interim, perhaps someone will assist us in locating its source or perhaps I fabricated it out of plain cloth? In which case I offer an apology to Shakespeare and any reader of this thread that may have suffered offense.

  • Shouldn’t we be working with this man? – Chris L.

    Please mark me down for a vote in the yes column. I think Mr. Barnet’s vision concerning a loosely based network of communities distributed globally, operating independently, focused locally yet coalescing around a shared sense of mission and purpose and values and sharing resources represents an optimal model for leveraging the Logos or Tao of the Internet.

    As I pondered the initial question, a set of secondary questions began to arise. What is ROS’s guiding vision? Does ROS need a vision statement? What is ROS’s mission? What is its purpose? What are ROS’s core values and guiding principles? If the development of community is integral to the success of ROS, does the community need to be informed with these essentials?

    Just as an individual benefits from a periodic examination of their purpose and values in relation to their activities and use of resources, so too might a community?

    I recognize that much of this process is probably currently taking place behind the scenes. I raise the question primarily as food for thought and fodder for comment and discussion.

  • Chris: “I am seriously interested in an openConspiracy between Open Source and openDemocracy.”

    Go for it. openDemocracy is one of the few ‘free’ things on the net I’ve actually broken the interia barrier on and donated to, as I think its so important BUT they started doing their own podcasts and they weren’t very good. I stopped subscribing after a bit. Open Source is (was?) a proper professional radio show – even for those of us off round the world who always got you day late via iTunes. So with your ‘sound’ and their content, it could be great.

    I could also stick up for Blair just a little bit as well, but I won’t ‘cos I know all you lot will just kick me. 😉

  • Zeke

    flow: ‘s ok. Thanks for looking. In any case it helped me with my reading of Merchant of Venice so, if Sheakespeare didn’t say it, he SHOULD have!

  • Potter

    Flow- to evolve, for community, through conversation, discussion.

    Tobyin the North- Please stick up for Blair. I stuck up for Tom Friedman and took it.

  • Well, we don’t have Nixon to kick around any more…

    (and I was soooo ready)

  • Potter

    We have Cheney/Bush (note reversed order).We have Rove. We have Gonzales. We had Rumsfeld for awhile- too long. If only Colin Powell had been our friend.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    “we are often most critical of others for what we find most condemning in ourselves.” Vice President Cheney looks into the mirror and sees me, Pete Crangle; then he sneers menacingly at the image and decides upon policies leading to mass homicide.