‘It’s time to stop the bully’: Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn on Occupy Wall Street, the Israel lobby and the New York Times
When the Occupy Wall Street protests began to attract attention in the fall, everyone wanted to know where the idea to set up a permanent protest at the heart of Manhattan’s financial district came from. The answer was the mind of Kalle Lasn, the co-editor (along with Micah White) of the anti-consumerist “culture jamming” magazine Adbusters. It was Adbusters, calling for an American “Tahrir moment,” that originally put out the call to occupy Wall Street on September 17.
But not all the attention Lasn and his magazine received was positive, though. It was the New York Times coverage of Adbusters and Lasn’s role in the Occupy movement that caused him the most grief by smearing them as anti-Semitic.
“For me, the New York Times is really important right now, because it was one of the most ugly experiences of my year, where they took a couple of quick swipes at my magazine and me personally,” Lasn told Mondoweiss in a recent phone interview. “I have such huge respect for the New York Times and I subscribe to it and I’ve been reading it every morning for the last ten years of my life.”
Now, Lasn is speaking out about the New York Times‘ refusal to print his response to two articles in the newspaper that alleged Adbusters was anti-Semitic. (Read more about the controversy here, and read this New Yorker article on the origins and future of Occupy Wall Street for more about Lasn and White.)
Mondoweiss recently caught up with Lasn for an extended interview with the sixty-nine year old activist to discuss Occupy Wall Street, Palestine, the Israel lobby and more.
Alex Kane: Tell me about yourself, I’ve read some, but details about your life and what you’re doing at Adbusters.
Kalle Lasn: Well, I don’t think my history’s all that fascinating, but I think the really fascinating thing about Adbusters magazine and what I’m doing right now is this Occupy movement that we helped to spark a couple of months ago and the possibilities for where this movement could—the possibility it could fizzle out, but it could also blossom into this powerful kind of force on the political left that could change not just the way we think about financial speculators and fat cats on Wall Street, but all kinds of arenas as well, including the political and foreign policy arenas. So, yeah, that’s sort of the big thing in my life right now, just thinking about that and trying to infuse our magazine and our website and our tactical briefings with this spirit of this youthful revolt that the Occupy movement represents.
AK: How do you see Adbusters’ role in the Occupy movement?
KL: Well you know, we were the people who were lucky enough to sort of spark the whole thing just at the right moment with some of the posters we came up with and that hashtag Occupy Wall Street [#occupywallstreet], choosing that magical date, September 17th, that seemed to absolutely be the right moment. When a movement is ripe, then all it takes is one spark, and I think that spark did happen on September the 17th, and after that of course, the movement started to have a life of its own, and all we’ve really been doing is churning out our tactical briefings and trying to, to the extent that it’s possible, to sort of have influence on a movement like this, to infuse our Adbusters’ tactical ideas into the movement and trying to keep our finger in the pie, so to speak.
KL: Let me enlarge the conversation a little bit. I think one of the interesting things about this Occupy movement is that I think it will come back, after hibernating for the winter, it will come back next spring and it will get involved in more than just economics. It will start playing around with politics and possibly launching third political parties and all kinds of political energy will come out of this movement. And one of the arenas that I think it may have some influence on is this—kind of a, what Adbusters long ago started calling the United States of Amnesia—this fact that most of the people in America actually aren’t getting the information that they need to make wise decisions about foreign policy and political matters. I think from my perspective, it seems like American political thinking is being distorted by a number of bubbles, and one of those bubbles is that AIPAC bubble, which is a very powerful, probably the most powerful lobby in America, and it has the power to intimidate politicians and get them to never say anything negative about Israel, and it’s got to the point where even the president of the United States is intimidated by this lobby and forced to do all kinds of things that he wouldn’t normally do.
I think another one of the bubbles is a media bubble, because there’s a special sensitivity to this issue, and the Holocaust, and it’s such an emotionally charged thing, and I think the media is quite often pro-Israeli in a knee-jerk way. For example, when Ehud Barak visited the United States of America last week, he went on the Charlie Rose Show, and with Fareed Zakaria, and he basically blitzed the media, and he left the impression that somehow it would be absolutely perfectly okay for us to attack Iran. Some of the other ways of looking at it—like this idea that Israel also has nukes, and that maybe a smarter strategy would be to fight for a nuclear-free Middle East rather than bomb the hell out of Iran, and some of the historical nuances about American CIA involvement back there a long time ago that started this unholy business that has been unfolding these past 30, 40, 50 years—those things were completely missing from the media. And then even newspapers like the New York Times, which is one of the great newspapers of the world, has Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner, a couple of their main people who write about the Middle East and Israeli/Palestine matters, and these two people are so obviously biased in favor of Israel, that it’s really disheartening to see the New York Times not mixing it up a little bit more and allowing more of a Palestinian perspective into what they write.
And David Brooks had a quick swipe at Adbusters, and then Joseph Berger took an even more vicious anti-Semitic swipe at Adbusters, and when we wrote them back a letter demanding a right of reply, they wouldn’t even print it, because we weren’t just talking about Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner and David Brooks, but we actually pointed out in our letter that the New York Times has got an anti-Palestinian bias to it, and they didn’t want to run that letter, I don’t know why. I hope you can phone them up and ask them. I did send an envelope to everybody at the New York Times giving them this back and forth e-mail exchange that I had fighting for my right of reply.
So there’s an AIPAC bubble, there’s a media bubble, but I think one of the even more powerful bubbles that exists in America in addition, is what I call the neocon bubble, and this is a very powerful, quite often very highly pro-Israeli bunch of intellectuals who have sort of been keeping all of us on our toes and they were instrumental in pushing a lot of policies, very heavily pro-Israeli policies, they were instrumental in pushing for the Iraq War and now they’re also instrumental in pushing for an attack on Iran. We have three big bubbles in America, and this is what we here at Adbusters have been kind of fighting against for the last 15 years.
AK: Right. It’s interesting, because what connects all those bubbles, really, is a devotion to Israel. But the article that David Brooks and Commentary criticized Adbusters for was pointing out the very simple fact that many neoconservatives are Jewish, and it’s a sensitive subject for many reasons obviously. But what are your thoughts on how all these questions relate to Jewish privilege and influence in the United States?
KL: Well, I’m not quite sure what you’re asking here, I mean, as I pointed out in my right of reply letter, David Brooks wrote an article last year where he pointed out that x percent of Pulitzer Prize winners were Jewish, and he had sort of a litany of a half-dozen percentages that all pointed out how intellectually powerful and creative the Jewish people are. And in my right of reply letter, I wanted to ask David Brooks, well, if he can quote those percentages, then why can’t Adbusters point out that a percentage of the neocons are also Jewish?
But for me, I think the really big point is, that article we wrote—that was written seven years ago. It was a half-page article in a copy of Adbusters seven years ago, and it has caused us a lot of grief—grief because we were attacked for being anti-Semitic, because if you start defending yourself against anti-Semitism, I found, then it’s a losing proposition. It’s like defending yourself against rabies; it’s like defending yourself against smallpox. The more you defend yourself, the more excited you get about defending yourself against it, the more people think, well this is suspicious, maybe the guy does have rabies, maybe the guy does have smallpox, maybe he is anti-Semitic.
So defending yourself against anti-Semitism is really a game, and I played that game for the first few months, and years after that article came out, I always lost. So I’ve decided I’m not going to play that game anymore. I would like to now go on the offensive, and I would like to talk about AIPAC, and I’d like to talk about the New York Times and Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner and David Brooks, and I’d like to, above all, start popping these three bubbles. The people who feel that American foreign policy has been distorted by the neocons, by the media and by AIPAC, it’s time for us to stop arguing about it and start going on the offensive. Stop defending yourself and go on the offensive right now and start popping those three bubbles. And I’m hoping that a lot of people of like mind from this Occupy movement will move into this area, and we will be as aggressive as AIPAC, as aggressive as some of these neocons have been, and fighting back against them. What I’m saying is, we need a hashtag, #occupytheneocons, we need a hashtag, #occupyAIPAC.
AK: You said the charges of anti-Semitism caused you at Adbusters a lot of grief. Was this personal grief, was this professional grief? Obviously, the charge of anti-Semitism can be a powerful one, and it can be career wrecking for some people.
KL: Oh yeah, it has ruined a lot of careers. And it’s damaged many of them. I really sympathize with people like Norman Finkelstein and even President Carter, who dare to use words like apartheid, or who dare to speak back against these neocons, and suddenly found themselves vilified, they found themselves pilloried in the media, and so it is a very, very dangerous thing to stand up and speak the way that Adbusters and many other people have done, because it can be career destroying, for a politician it could mean you’re not going to get elected next time around, and it’s for a lot of people, it’s just like a lose-lose proposition. It takes a lot of courage, and I hope that from now on the political left will have more of that courage, because why we’ve been losing these political battles for so long, and why American foreign policy has been so distorted by the dual-loyalties of many neocons. It’s because we’re always on the defensive, we’re scared to go on the offensive and we’re scared to actually expose one by one these neocons and actually point out where their loyalties lie and so on. And we’re scared to really rabidly go after AIPAC because it’s such a huge, big opponent that can do us in. So yes, I think we need more courage on the political left.
AK: You live in Canada, correct?
AK: And you know, Palestine, when it comes up in the Occupy movement, in New York at least, there’s been some controversy about it—kind of the old dividing line in left and anti-war movements. Where you live—I know Canada has become extremely right-wing in its support for Israel—but is the discourse the same where you live, or is it different?
KL: I think it’s very similar. Especially right now, we have a prime minister who is very right-wing and the discourse is very, very similar, I think it’s kind of a North American discourse, and I don’t think there’s a huge different between the Canadian discourse and the U.S. discourse. It’s just very, very similar, and the situation here is the same. Like for example, when we published an article that Canadian Jewish groups here found disturbing or offensive, then they were instrumental in convincing the biggest magazine distributor in Canada to pull 3,000 issues of Adbusters and not to allow Adbusters to distribute our magazine in their hundreds of stores around Canada. So this is the sort of power they have and this is the grief that they can cause for people. Quite apart from some people getting offended and canceling their subscription, which is just par for the course when you run a magazine, but the Jewish lobby, the pro-Israeli lobby in Canada and the U.S., has this power to really make magazines like us pay a price for speaking back.
AK: What do you make of the fact that there has been controversy, at least some and obviously Palestine doesn’t play a big part in the Occupy movement, but the fact that there has been at least some online controversy about Palestine in the Occupy movement. What does that say to you?
KL: Oh, I haven’t thought too much about that, I don’t really think about stuff like that. I mean, for me, it’s a more simple kind of situation, I don’t really bother with smaller skirmishes. I mean, for me, it’s about Israel behaving badly, and it’s about the Palestinian freedom fight, which I really believe in. I believe that the Palestinian freedom fight is one of the great freedom fights of our time, and I want to support it in any way that I can.
AK: And you were saying before, as the Occupy movement expands, you want and you think and you’re interested in seeing whether the Occupy movements take on U.S. foreign policy. Can you talk more about that?
KL: You know, well, I think that the political left has been whining and complaining and being kind of useless, in the sense that the Berlin Wall fell back in 1989, and we basically have been very ineffectual. And here at Adbusters we have been saying for a long, long time that we have to jump over the dead body of the old left, and we’ve been trying to do that but now with this Occupy movement I think it is finally possible to jump over the dead body of the old left, and for some of these Young Turks who are coming out of the Occupy movement, for us to start having our own powerful, kind of a, intellectual group of people that can stand up to the neocons, and can infuse the American media with different perspectives than what we’re getting right now and we can sort of engage with AIPAC in a way where they don’t always win. So I think that many of the occupiers will not agree with me that the Palestinian freedom fight is one of the great freedom fights of all time and they should be supported, I mean they will have their own perspective, but I think, and do feel, that now that it’s kind of “cool” to be left again, there will be some powerful lefty political discourse starting to come out of this movement. And I think it has the power to start popping some of these bubbles that I’ve been talking about and giving the people of America more information to make wise decisions about whether we should support an attack on Iran, or whether we should cut off the money supply to the Palestinians, or whether we should allow Netanyahu to build more settlements, and stuff like that.
AK: I know you said your personal background wasn’t pertinent, but I was reading that you were born in Estonia. Is that correct?
KL: That’s correct. If you’re looking for some sort of, bit of a hint from my history for where I’m coming from, is that, yeah, I was born in Estonia and when the Russians came in my family caught the last [way] out and spent the next five years in various displaced persons’ camps in Europe and Germany, and I remember the first few years of my life were full of emotional, political discourse. I went to sleep every night listening to the adults argue about the Nazis and the Russians and so I’m a highly politicized human being right from the start. And I’ve always believed in, I’ve always taken the side of, I hate bullies. I hate bullies and I love freedom fights.
AK: How has that experience shaped your politics on Israel/Palestine?
KL: Yeah. When I see Israel acting so arrogant and so tough—here’s one of the most powerful military forces in the world, they have nukes—and when I see them cordoning off Gaza the way they do and when they attack Gaza the way they did, it just fills me with rage because this is a powerful bully that is basically turning Gaza into kind of a turkey shoot. I really see it in this kind of very visceral way, like how could they possibly get away with doing this? For me, it’s almost a very black and white battle where, let’s stop arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong, let’s just take sides and start fighting for the human rights and the other rights that the Palestinians should have, and let’s not allow the bully to always win. I mean, it’s time to stop the bully.