With violence escalating to new heights in Iraq, Bill Moyers takes a look at who really holds the power. Amid reports of more Shiites turning against the American-led occupation, David Brancaccio interviews staff writer for THE NEW YORKER Jon Lee Anderson via satellite for a close look at the situation on the ground. Then, Bill Moyers talks to Karen Armstrong, a leading authority on the world’s great religions, about whether strong religious faith is compatible with religious freedom. Moyers also speaks with historian Kevin Phillips to examine who is winning and who is losing on the economic front in America. He concludes the episode with an essay on the treatment of US soldiers a year after the invasion of Iraq.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
So much news this week. We heard tense and often partisan exchanges as Condoleezza Rice testified before the 9/11 Commission. And from halfway around the world, the disintegrating situation in Iraq demands attention. In this election year, the results from the battlefield are fed directly into the spin machine — downplayed by the administration, amplified by the president’s opponents.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: In fact, Bill — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the fighting in Iraq the work of “thugs, gangs and terrorists”… And not a popular uprising. But already Iraqis are calling it an “intifada ” — the Arabic word for “shaking off” that Palestinians use to describe their struggle against Israel.
And a brutal new tactic was on display with pictures like these broadcast over and over around the world: three blindfolded Japanese hostages… kneeling with guns to their heads… And now new reports of other foreigners being scooped up off the street by angry gangs.
In Falluja, a shaky ceasefire has been on and off all day. The U.S. siege of that city has provoked condemnation and raw rage across Iraq. Shiite groups are sending food and medicine to their former enemies, the Sunni insurgents who are hemmed in by American marines.
And the Shiite followers of this man — Moktada al-Sadr — have effectively taken control of Najaf, and portions of other southern cities.
Joining me from Baghdad to help us frame our thinking on these developments is THE NEW YORKER magazine’s man in Iraq, Jon Lee Anderson. He’s at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. One year ago, Anderson was one of a small handful of foreign correspondents who stuck it out in Baghdad as U.S. troops approached the city. He’s been back and forth since then and returned to Iraq six weeks ago. Jon Lee Anderson welcome to NOW.
JON LEE ANDERSON: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Jon Lee, has your fundamental understanding of the situation shifted over the past week?
JON LEE ANDERSON: I would have to say that over the past year my feeling about the American coalition project in Iraq has been one of steady disheartment. And really began about this time last year when the city fell. And within a day or two, I realized that our compatriots weren’t gonna stop the looting of this city.
And I had, and I have, a great many Iraqi friends who were extremely enthusiastic and excited about their liberation from Saddam in his long dictatorship. And became extremely depressed, and disillusioned and disoriented over what was happening in the succeeding weeks. And really I think in a sense this is a house that was built on a bad foundation. And the foundation was the Americans coming here and allowing the sacking, burning and plunder of Baghdad, for whatever reason.
The Iraqis that I know again, as I say, with no love lost for either the Mujahedeen in Falluja, or Moktada al-Sadr and his boys feel a certain kind of surge of pride that Iraqis are actually standing up for themselves.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: If we are to believe US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield, this violence that we’ve seen over the past week is mainly with a few thousand radicals often aligned with Moktada al-Sadr, the radical cleric.
JON LEE ANDERSON: One has to remember that for every armed radical, there are– there is a large family network and relatives.
And beyond that, Iraqi’s society as a whole is resentful of the foreign occupation of their country. However, whatever it’s intentions, the problem has been throughout the past year that the Americans have not been able to visibly show the Iraqis their good intentions. The Americans may have excuses for that, such is that they have had to fight it counter insurgency, and to protect themselves.
But nonetheless, many Iraqis feel that that presence has been hoisted upon them. Life has become terribly insecure. And now, it’s on the vortex of what appears to be a civil war. It’s difficult to know how America will bring it back from the brink and build up good will.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: But even in a practical level. You had this situation a week ago where the four American civilians are murdered and their bodies brutalized on television. US military goes in and then you hear today Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni member of the Iraqi governing council saying quote, these operations were a mass punishment for the people of Fallujah. It is not right to punish all the people of Fallujah. And we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal. What do you make of that?
JON LEE ANDERSON: Well, many hundreds of the people either have died in this operation. Now it’s interesting that the Americans decided that this was a no-go city and taboo and needed to be punished following the murder of these four Americans.
And possibly for public relations purposes. But they boxed themselves into a real corner here. They’ve had to declare unilateral cessation of hostilities. We’re now gonna see the images, no doubt, of the dead and wounded. The mercy caravans are through there the medicine refugees flowing out. It makes the United States look very bad here. And much more like an occupation force than it did before.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Talking about these images tell me how these images or atrocities are playing out. My understanding is a lot of people in Iraq have satellite television. And they’re able to see images from Arab television. Al Jazeera has been broadcasting scenes of piles of bodies as their crew arrived with a makeshift morgue in the city streets.
Other bodies being dug out of the rubble as buildings and homes destroyed in what seemed like indiscriminate American fire. And scenes of the wounded including children in Falluja hospitals. These images are really part of the equation about Iraqi attitudes toward the occupation, aren’t they?
JON LEE ANDERSON: Very much so. Iraqis have felt extremely frustrated about their people who have been getting killed.
And the reaction that I felt after the images of the four Americans going being burnt was one of human compassion in the sense that you know most Iraqis are also horrified at the mutilation. But there is also a sense of well some of those deserve to die, too. You know some of those got it, too.
Sadly this is becoming a society that’s increasingly hostile to Americans. And that was not the case a year ago.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: And is the lesson of the week these images of Shiites sending aid to Sunnis in Falluja?
JON LEE ANDERSON: Yes, I suppose it is. I was at a mosque yesterday morning it’s called the Mother of all Battles Mosque. It was built by Saddam because he hid in a house there during the Gulf War, the first Gulf War. At this mosque, a huge caravan of vehicles set forth gathered and set forth to Fallujah yesterday.
I watched trucks arrive from Shia neighborhoods with a black Shia flag. They in support of their Shia brothers. Afterwards I went to a Sunni mosque– not far away where they had posters of Moktada al-Sadr up. And I spoke to the Imam of the mosque the priest. And he said this is no longer an uprising. It’s a jihad. There’s no difference between Sunnis and Shias. We are all Muslims and we are fighting for God. Whatever the Americans do on June 30th, we will continue to fight until all foreign troops leave Iraqi soil.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: I was reading NEW YORK TIMES columnist Thomas Freidman who has supported the US effort to oust Saddam, of course. And to install a model democracy in Iraq this week.
And he writes “We cannot want a decent more than the Iraqi silent majority.” Because he writes “this is an urban war. And US soldiers having to fight house to house inside Iraqi cities cannot win it only Iraqis can.” Where are these moderate Iraqis?
JON LEE ANDERSON: Like moderate people everywhere, they are afraid of violence. They are in their houses. They’re looking after their families and their children. And they don’t wanna be killed. There is a great many people that are askance at Sadr and his followers. They are in essence like the Taliban of Iraqi society. But they are afraid of their guns.
And as happens in most places where revolutions occur, or uprisings occur, which become possibly national revolts, it is usually a small group. A small elite which sets the spark off. In this case, serendipity made it Moktada al-Sadr. Until recently regarded as a buffoon by the west and indeed by many Iraqis. And he perhaps has ceased to be as important as the wave of popular feeling that he has unleashed.
And the sense amongst I think quite a few Iraqis that are they entering a decisive period in which they will force the United States to come to some kind of political — some kind of acceptance of their limitations here.
I think down the road, if this worsens, and the Americans leave precipitously, there is a risk of civil war. I don’t want to overemphasize that.
But I think there is a real risk of it, especially now. If there wasn’t such a great risk ten days ago, there is a much greater risk now. And it’s because you have some factions who have seized the initiative. And there are these other factions. And they will inevitably have to fight.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Jon Lee, what is that announcement I hear in the background?
JON LEE ANDERSON: There’s a police truck going around informing people, as it has been doing all day, that they should remain in their homes. And that if anybody is seen on the street with a gun they will be shot on sight. And the American military has secured the downtown area.
And this sound truck has been going around all day. Not too long ago, in fact, there was a couple of young men arrested after shots were fired, just before we began speaking here on the street. Because they were walking in the street– apparently.
There, you know, tension is high here. And they are, they have been expecting attacks. And indeed there was a some mortars lobbed about an hour ago which landed about 200 meters away.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: You had quite a week. At one point this week, it’s my understanding that you yourself were, that you yourself were detained?
JON LEE ANDERSON: Yes. Three days ago. Leaving Najaf after Sadr’s number two gave a press conference I two photographs and myself were trying to come back to Baghdad. We came through the town that Sadr controls, Kufa. And we were taken into custody by his gunmen.
And, we turned to the mosque where a palaver ensued, negotiations ensued. They clearly thought that because of the cameras, we were spies. It was a bit difficult to convince them we were journalists.
It was dicey. It was not fun. But what made it all the more, I suppose frightening was that we heard later that the same people were holding John Burns of THE NEW YORK TIMES.
And he and his companions were seized by the same people. Actually, held at the moment we were there. We didn’t realize it. And was taken off into the desert, blindfolded, and held in a hut. And they were talking about killing them. And evidently, some backdoor negotiations with more senior Sadr people got them released.
So, yeah, it was — things like this have been happening lately. And we’re all on the watch for them.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: A lot of us are trying to put this all together this week. I went to– the book shelf, and took down, A WORLD TRANSFORMED. And this was written by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and George Bush, the older George Bush, current George Bush’s father —
JON LEE ANDERSON: Senior. Uh-huh.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: And I’m reading through this. I want to get your reaction to this quote. He’s talking about 1991, after Kuwait had been liberated by coalition forces. And the authors write, “Trying to eliminate Saddam would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad, and in effect, rule Iraq. There was no viable exit strategy that we could see.” The quotation goes on, “Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in the bitterly hostile land.”
JON LEE ANDERSON: I disagree with it. I think that if America had finished the job in 1991, prevented the massacre of the Shia in the south, and shown itself to have had the moral high ground, to have had the moral authority to expunge it’s recent past relationship with Saddam, which if you’ll remember in the 1980’s, we were providing him with military aid and intelligence while he fought Iran, and also while he suppressed the Kurds with chemical weapons.
We needed to make good then. We didn’t. We stood by, and allowed the Shia, many, many, many, many Shia to be massacred. And many more Kurds, and many more Iraqis to die over the following 13 years. I don’t think we would have had to be an occupying power if we had done the right thing in 1991.
It’s a very different question today. We have entered into a country with — where the Iraqi people feel very cynical about the West, and about America. And the — our relationship over the past year bears out the old adage, “Intimacy breeds contempt,” I’m sorry to say.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, Jon Lee Anderson in Baghdad, thank you very much for joining us. And take care of yourself.
JON LEE ANDERSON: Thank you, David. I will.
BILL MOYERS: In the chaos that is Iraq, one thing is clear: the face of war grows younger and younger.
We all remember those boys gloating last week over the burning corpses of Americans in Falluja. And these, exulting over flesh strung from a telephone cable. Journalists saw that “boys yanked a smoldering body into the street and ripped it apart.” Some pounded the charred corpse with their shoes. As the “bodies were dragged through the streets,” “children cheered and danced,” “…manic with glee at the barbarity inflicted” on the dead Americans in the heart of the Sunni Triangle.
These kids are demonstrating in support of the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr who ordered the Shiite uprising last weekend… children chanting slogans of solidarity… parading with swords at the ready. “It’s just amazing,” an American lieutenant told the WASHINGTON POST, “the kids I talked with two, three days ago are the same ones that are throwing the rocks at us as hard as they can.”
When the Americans arrived in the Shiite section of Baghdad last year, the people who had suffered under Saddam Hussein shook hands with them and smiled. That was then. Now, they see their liberator in the militant young mullah Sadr. “Terrorize your enemy.” He commands — and they do.
A story from the news agency Reuters quotes another cleric: “When the order comes for a holy war, there will not be one American left in the street.” You can believe he means it. An American captain says these holy warriors willing to die for a cause “just stand up in the open, fire from the hip, and stand there until they kill or are killed.”
What drives such fury? Many things, including decades of Saddam Hussein’s propaganda, which blamed Americans and Jews for everything wrong in Iraq. Last week, one of those mutilated American corpses was dragged down the street by a car displaying a picture of the Palestinian Hamas leader who had been assassinated days before by Israel on orders of Ariel Sharon; America got blamed for that.
And those mutilated corpses – good riddance, some Iraqis said, to CIA spies and mercenaries. Revenge, said others, for Iraqi deaths at the hands of Americans. The fog of war produces its own toxin. These mourners at a funeral procession for two children killed by a rocket last month; say Americans did it, though no one has yet proved it.
As the battles this week raged through poor crowded slums, ordinary people got caught in the crossfire; American troops entering houses and mosques looking for insurgents fired at furtive shadows, gunships and Apache choppers leveled houses not knowing who was really inside. Among the victims: a ten-year-old, and a man in his sixties, the father of twelve.
“There is no more confusing moment in a man’s life than when he’s being shot at,” a general in Iraq told a journalist. Unless it’s a moment like this: Army Major Douglas Babb, 4th Infantry Division, warning children away from his convoy. Give the kids nothing, the troops are told; take nothing from them — any exchange could be lethal. Friend or foe, you can’t be sure, there is in war no tender age.
Earlier this week the radio reported that some American troops were advancing with fixed bayonets. And you have to wonder: Who is more terrified — the young American soldiers ordered forward, or the kids, the children, the boys, waiting for them… martyrs in the making?
Now it’s time for some political analysis from a veteran observer of politics and the economy.
Kevin Phillips’ 1969 book THE EMERGING REPUBLICAN MAJORITY anticipated the breakdown of liberalism and the rise of the conservative era of American life.
He’s written 11 books in all… best-sellers such as THE POLITICS OF RICH AND POOR and WEALTH AND DEMOCRACY. His latest is already on the best-seller list: AMERICAN DYNASTY: ARISTOCRACY, FORTUNE, AND THE POLITICS OF DECEIT IN THE HOUSE OF BUSH.
You’ve heard him often on NPR and seen him here on NOW. Welcome back
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Nice to be here.
BILL MOYERS: You have a very big article coming out this weekend in the LOS ANGELES TIMES in which you say that we could be entering a very toxic, a very incendiary period of politics in this country.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I remember back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, one of the things that I did that Nixon was always very interested in was this pattern of how Americans re-fight wars. And how they don’t like to lose them. But then when they’re not handled well and the ramifications are unexpected, they really take this and chew it.
Especially if the peace doesn’t turn out to be nearly as effective as the military victory, and the good examples there are World Wars I and II where everything in Europe, after the military side had been successful, degenerated into revolutions in 1919 and ’20, the communist takeover in the late ’40s. And all of this just worked very much against the people who had taken credit for the military side.
Usually it benefited the Republicans. But I think what we have here almost for the first time is a war that’s been bungled by the Republicans. Which will probably benefit the Democrats, even if they don’t have any particular credentials.
BILL MOYERS: I was there in the White House during the Johnson years, in Vietnam, you were in the Nixon White House. We saw how the Democratic bungling of the war in Vietnam led to the rise of the conservative era. Isn’t it too early though to see what the dramatic or radical impact, what’s happening in Iraq?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I would say it’s too early to count the chickens on Iraq because the terrorist issue is out there in a way we can’t quite imagine. Now if the administration catches Osama Bin Laden at just the right time and he makes certain he can’t say a word, because if he can say a word he’s going to talk about things that went on a long time ago maybe they can cash the chips on that one.
But right at this point in time, I would say that there’s an inner relationship between Iraq and the terrorist issue which is growing in a negative way. Because Iraq has become the vortex now of opposition to the United States by radicalized Islamic people.
BILL MOYERS: Here’s the surprising thing to me. I mean, it took eight years for the war in Vietnam to truly up end American politics. From 1965 until 1975, when the United States left. This seems to be happening in a very compressed period of time.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, it seems to be happening in a compressed period of time if you take 2003 and 2004 and say these are the frameworks chronologically.
I would not. I would say that you really have to go back — the seeds of these problems go back to the mobilization of the insurgents in Afghanistan against the Soviets during the 1980s. That’s Afghanistan. Terrorism with Osama Bin Laden goes back to the arrival of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia in 1990 and 1991, which radicalized a lot of those people. ‘Cause they said, “You’ve got all these crusaders on the Holy Land of Islam.” And of course we had the first Iraqi war, which is what I think you have to think of it as, in 1990 and ’91. So you’ve actually got quite a long framework here.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. War always does. I mean, George Bush the first was really brought down by the — not only by the economy in 1992, but by the way that war ended. A lot dissatisfaction over its being unrequited.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, people forget that because once he was defeated in 1992, it was kind of pushed aside. But in one of the debates, Ross Perot blamed him for having built up Saddam Hussein during what Bill Safire called the Iraq-gate scandal. Where the U.S. was giving all kinds of assistance to Saddam in 1989 and ’90 before he went into Kuwait.
And Perot said worse, he said that the State Department in 1990 had given Saddam a green light to go into Kuwait. Now what he meant by that was that they weren’t taking a hard line and saying that they would protect Kuwait. They were not.
So all of this became an issue. But we’ve forgotten about it. And I have to say that when I got back into some of the politics of the 1980s, I found, you know, I really hadn’t remembered some of that.
BILL MOYERS: I didn’t either. Bill Safire, the WALL STREET JOURNAL, other conservatives are saying, “Don’t panic, you guys. We have got to prevail. We, the United States, have got to prevail. And we can prevail.” What do you think of that?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I don’t think too much of it. I think the fundamental problem there is Iraq is not really a nation. Iraq is a bunch of lines drawn on a map of the Middle East in 1919. It’s got the same problem that Czechoslovakia had and that Yugoslavia had. They were created by people who drew lines and they put people together–
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, I said to somebody yes —
KEVIN PHILLIPS: — but it doesn’t work.
BILL MOYERS: I said to somebody yesterday I don’t think this is Bush’s Vietnam. I think this is the war in Yugoslavia. A huge vacuum, which will be filled by ethnic, tribal, religious conflicts. You think that’s possible?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think it’s certainly possible. If you take the combination of Afghanistan, where one of the provinces has just slipped away from the control of Kabul — and you take Pakistan and you take Iran and you take Iraq and you take Saudi Arabia, you’ve got countries that have relationships to one another. I’m not saying they’re dominoes yet.
But I think a lot of people in Washington are probably beginning to get nervous that instead of being dominoes of spreading democracy, they could be dominoes of spreading problems.
And my sense is that what we’re verging on here is if you take all these countries in the Middle East that were just mentioned it’s too much of a pattern. We may be looking at a radicalism of Islam particularly the Persian Gulf and the Pakistan and Afghanistan that gets away from us. That creates, if not a hostile block, at least adjacent clumpings of chaotic circumstances.
BILL MOYERS: And doesn’t that make it very difficult for the Democrats to exploit the vulnerability right now? Because there is this war on terror, as you say, that transcends sovereignties, it transcends boundaries. And a Democrat cannot do anything, no politician can do anything that tends to dismiss or ignore or inflame the terrorists.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, the question is what inflamed the terrorists in the first case. You can make a case against the administration that a lot of what put Osama Bin Laden and the Islamic radicals in motion was a combination of Afghanistan, where the Taliban was built up in a way that was fairly stupid in some respects. Also the extent to which the Pakistanis got the nuclear bomb during a period when BCCI was providing for some funding of transfer of technology. And that was a Bush period. And you’ve got that situation with Iraq.
So I think the Democrats can basically point to failures in the Republican policy structure. The way the Republicans, and I remember this very well, could point to failures in Vietnam, at Yalta, at the Versailles and the peace negotiations.
BILL MOYERS: Korea.
BILL MOYERS: Who lost North Korea?
BILL MOYERS: In your article coming out this weekend in the LOS ANGELES TIMES, you write about how the Bush administration actually coddled the Saudis and the Bin Laden’s, both before and after 9/11. And you say the Arab connection is going to be a very big live wire in this election. What do you mean?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, let’s take the two separately. The Arab connection is that the Republicans back in 2000, 1999 and 2000, were putting a major emphasis on the Muslim vote, believe it or not. And the estimates range from anywhere from three million to seven million Muslims, and in some states they were deemed to be pivotal. And Florida was one of them. And it looks like the Republicans swept the Muslim vote in Florida with 50,000, 60,000. So that would mean that that was the margin.
So when they were courting the Muslim vote, they were dealing with a lot of these Saudi-funded Muslim foundations in the United States, some of which later turned out to have some links to some of the problem. ‘Cause of course the Saudis were part of the problem.
Now, the Bush’s have a long tie to the Saudi royal family, and indirectly to the Bin Laden’s. And as a result of the ties to the Saudis, we don’t need to take it any further than that for the moment; they put through in 2001 a change called the visa express. By which people in Saudi Arabia could get U.S. visas without actually going in and being photographed by —
BILL MOYERS: This was when?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: In 2001. June 2001. And three of the terrorists came into the United States under this very permissive framework. Then after 9/11, a group of people from Saudi Arabia, several groups were, including Bin Laden family members, were allowed to fly back when very little else was moving. Fly back to the Middle East. So this is coddling. It’s hard to define it any other way.
BILL MOYERS: But isn’t that it large part the consequence of an American economy that runs at high speed on Middle Eastern oil?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, oil is absolutely critical here, obviously. And if you think that Saudi Arabia might be falling apart, you want to think about getting Iraq which also has huge reserves.
If you look at the way in which the Bush’s have conducted foreign policy, oil has always been a major priority.
It’s a family that’s always been connected to the oil business. I mean, it goes back literally 100 years. And oil is a very major yardstick. But, frankly, they’re right about that. Oil for us is a huge yardstick. But in their particular case, it’s more than for other people because that’s what their background is.
BILL MOYERS: But every administration has to try to protect that flow of oil?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: And they have. You can go all the way back to FDR in the 1940s declaring Saudi Arabia a major concern. Obviously in the 1970s. Everybody’s done it.
But the other presidents, however much they cared about oil, didn’t have these personal involvements.
BILL MOYERS: Is Senator John Kerry the man to exploit effectively what’s happening to the administration’s policies?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: I’m not sure. I don’t have a sense that he has a sense of the jugular. I think he sort of has the Democratic establishment sense of the capillaries. You know, they hate to go in there and really strike hard because they’re not sure enough of themselves.
So I’ll have to be persuaded that he has the capacity to really make an issue out of a lot of these things. But he did play a major role in the 1980s with a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee investigation and hearings on BCCI and some of the corruption in the Middle East.
BILL MOYERS: The big banks down there.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: The big banks. So he may know where some very important bodies are buried.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s move from foreign affairs and politics to the economy. Next week is tax time. We all fill out our forms on Thursday night and get them to the IRS. What’s happening in terms of the tax distribution in this country that most concerns you?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, the tax distribution basically has moved to penalizing people who are wage earners, who actually work for a living, and favoring those who inherit, who invest, who belong to the corporate hierarchy. It’s really gone much further than people understand. And if you put the Social Security or the FICA tax in the calculations of who pays what tax, it’s extraordinary how the– rates that fall on people right in the middle are really not very different than those that fall on people right at the top.
BILL MOYERS: The share of taxation paid by corporations has been steadily dropping, hasn’t it?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, it’s now down in 2003 to 7.4 percent of the total government revenues. That is the second lowest in the last 60 years. Some of the recent data shows that from 1996 to 2000, 60 percent of American corporations didn’t pay any tax.
Now, there’s some legitimacy for this in terms of a lot of small businesses because they’ll pay themselves a salary and it won’t be off the wall. And that’s how they don’t make a profit and they don’t become taxable. Some individuals who own something.
But basically what it tells you is that the corporate framework has become a license to do things that weren’t really licensed before. Whether it’s in not paying many taxes, or in flooding the system with all this money by which they buy access. In terms of getting out from under regulations and labor standards. This has all gone too far. And this is part of the idea that corporations aren’t paying taxes in any very serious way in many situations is a really flashing yellow or red light for what’s gone wrong in this country.
BILL MOYERS: What does it mean to an issue you keep returning to time and again, which is equality and inequality in democracy?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: You can make too much out of inequality because there’s always going to be a lot of it. But when it reaches a certain point where it’s built up to these extreme levels that we’ve seen today, for example the top one percent has as much disposable income as either the bottom 50 percent or the bottom third, depending on what you trust. You’ve got such an outrageous mismatch of the American opportunity with the American reality that it creates its own corruption.
It creates the Enron’s, it’s creates a lot of what goes on in Congress where money buys its own way. This is the unacceptable part. Inequality in the United States has gotten to a level in which it seeds things that are going wrong with society, with corruption, with philosophy, with the U.S. ability to play an effective role in the world. People just look at us and they say, “This isn’t what the American Revolution was about. This isn’t what American democracy said it was and this is part of what has to be changed.
I think Kerry has just begun to put his toe in the water here. I’m not certain that he’s got the answers. But the corporations really have just gotten their own way, and the people at the top in the United States economically speaking have gotten their own way. And that is one of the greatest faults of this administration. But I would also say that Bill Clinton never did anything about it except talk.
BILL MOYERS: And John Kerry is a very rich man. I suspect that he is richer personally than George W. Bush. It’s going to be very hard for him, as Howard Dean reminded us, it’s going to be very hard for him to make a real issue out of this.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Oh, I think that’s absolutely right. One of the striking things, if you take Theresa Heinz Kerry’s fortune and put it with John Kerry’s, which I admit is sort of unfair. But if you were to do that then– his would be the richest ticket, no matter who they pick as vice president, the Democrats have ever had. And probably that anybody has ever had.
It’s difficult for me to see how he rises above that. This is one of the few things you can — I think Ralph Nader would be a spoiler if he got involved. But the idea of pointing out that Kerry represents a lot of the same economics in terms of his loyalties and background and family wealth is a very valid point to make.
BILL MOYERS: The last time you were with us, you were pessimistic about the capacity and ability of the political structure, the two-party political system, our existing status quo, to deal with these horrendous problems we’re facing both economically and in foreign policy. Has that changed?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: It’s changed only in one respect. I think it’s going to be very difficult for the United States to deal with all these things. Countries that get into the stage we are, I mean it’s sort of like the British in the early 20th century. It’s hard to fight your way out from all the interest groups and precedent.
But one thing I see happening that gives me a lot of sort of healthy attitude is the reaction by so many independents and Republicans. People I know. And generally people who are older as opposed to younger. That they really understand, like a lot of Democrats did in the 1960s, that something has gone wrong. Our policies aren’t working. The administration doesn’t really know what to do. And it’s time for a change. And the question is whether the Democrats can measure up to that opportunity.
BILL MOYERS: The book is AMERICAN DYNASTY. It’s already on the best-seller list. The author is Kevin Phillips. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Running through so much news these days is the power of religion to shape politics. From Christian Evangelicals to Muslim fundamentalists, we keep being reminded that our notions of God have consequences, personally and politically.
These consequences keep Karen Armstrong studying and scribbling away. She’s become one of the world’s leading interpreters of comparative religion. A HISTORY OF GOD, THE BATTLE FOR GOD, ISLAM: A SHORT HISTORY all became bestsellers. Her latest is more personal — an account of her own search as an inquiring soul with an active mind. It’s called THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: MY CLIMB OUT OF DARKNESS. Welcome back to NOW.
Why the title “The Spiral Staircase?”
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well, in mythology, a staircase is often a symbol of a change in consciousness. And I took this image of the spiral staircase from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Ash Wednesday.”
The first — it’s a sequence of poems about spiritual recovery, I think. And the first poem in that sequence is the spine of the book. It’s a poem that has stayed with me throughout my journey. And Eliot of seems in some of these poems to imagine the poet going up a spiral staircase.
And of course it’s a powerful image. Because even in my own life, I seemed to be going round and round and round, making the same mistakes, having the same failures, the same experiences – and seeming to make no headway. But in fact, even though you’re going round and round, you are going upward. You are moving towards up, as I hope, towards the light or in the labyrinth, into the center of yourself. But I hadn’t complete …I was only on the first step of the way when I heard that poem and had begun to turn again, the staircase in Eliot’s poem, the syntax itself twists round and round and repeats itself, just like a spiral staircase.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think we are programmed for belief? Do you think religion is an essential human activity?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes, I do. We’ve done religion ever since we fell out of the trees and became recognizably human. We’ve —
BILL MOYERS: Right.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: –bdone religion and works of art. We started creating rituals for ourselves. Neanderthal gravesbv– they’re beginning to bury their people. Trying to — we are meaning, seeking creatures. We are beings that fall very easily into despair if we don’t find meaning in what we do.
And so that search for meaning is part — we need it to make sense. We’re also very conscious of our turbulent inner world. And the old mythologies, the old religions tell told us before Jung and Freud how to get inside the labyrinth of ourselves, how to fight our own demons and our monsters and snares. Now that doesn’t mean we have to believe a whole lot of stuff. We’ve got into the habit of equating faith with believing 20 impossible propositions before breakfast.
BILL MOYERS: Well, how do you explain the fact that we seem today to be so torn apart by religious extremism, violence of every kind in the name of faith, of God.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well, that’s always been the case. There’s just but now of course the stakes are much higher because people are using more dreadful weapons than they ever did before. What happens — what has happened, I think, is that in area in countries where, regions, where there is prolonged endemic conflict religion has got sucked in a sort of vortex, a bad spiral as it were. And it has become extreme. It’s become part of the problem. War —
BILL MOYERS: Infected.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Infected.
BILL MOYERS: By the politics and violence of the —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Of — by the violence. Because after all, we worry about our children watching too much violence on television, and worry how that will affect their psyche, their souls. If you are living in a violent society, where bombs are continually dropping upon you, where there’s shooting in the streets, where your whole life is suffused with violence and hatred, you’re going to become your imagination is going to become ruined by this.
Just war affects everything that we do. It affects our dreams. It affects our art, our relationships. And it affects our religion. And that is what has happened. You see it clearly in the Islamic world, that most of the terrorism that is it expressing itself in such wicked and inhumane and cruel and terrible ways in these dreadful atrocities, has its roots in these regions of conflict.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that you wrote that book about Islam. And you’ve studied Islam more than almost any non Muslim who’s been here. Do you think that they can create constitutions and a constitution in Iraq, for example, that would provides democratic protections for men and women when the Islamic Sharia Law, the law of the faith, is so powerful?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well I think you have to see that Sharia law began as a counter cultural protest against government. And it was not until the Ottoman Empire that it became the law of the land. And it was that was rather a controversial step.
So that’s relatively late in the history of Islam, 16th Century. And, so it’s not that Muslims can not live without Sharia law. It’s that Iraq is a special case. Because Iraq is like one of these violent countries that has been brutalized by years of dictatorship, some of which we condoned. And then by warfare. Afghanistan is another case —
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: — in point — region just done over and ruined by decades of warfare. And so these countries are traumatized countries. And in order to be truly democratic, you have to feel free. You have to feel that your vote makes a difference. You have to feel, you have to know that you are in control of your destiny.
BILL MOYERS: So the constitution has to make sure the people feel empowered to use that —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes. And also, the constitution has to do it. But you’ve got to create the conditions where people do feel empowered and not colonized or dictated to by either a brutal dictator of their — among their own people, or the, you know, by foreign invading powers.
So, this is a difficulty. But it’s not right to say that Muslims are — have a knee-jerk reaction against democracy. At the beginning of the 20th Century, every leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the West, and wanted their countries to look like Britain and France.
In the early 20th Century the Grand Mufti of Egypt — a man called Muhammad Abduh, who hated the British occupation of his country, but admired the culture of Europe and was very much at home with Europeans– he visited Paris. And came back to Cairo and said, “In France,” he said, “I saw Islam and no Muslims. Here in Cairo I see Muslims, but no Islam.”
In other words what he was saying that in our modern democratic societies, we were creating the kind of equality that the Koran was preaching, better than in the traditional countries. In the Shiite world in Iran — in 1906, leading Mullahs campaigned with secular intellectuals in a revolution that demanded constitutional rights and a parliament.
But the British just two years later, I think — discovered oil in Iran. And they weren’t going to let the Muslims have their parliament. And they kept suborning it. And the Americans at that time took the British to task and said, “You stop rigging these elections and ruining this parliamentary experiment.”
So that kind of thing has made democracy seem like a bad joke to many people. Plus, we’ve often in the West supported regimes, and is still supporting regimes —
BILL MOYERS: Saudi Arabia.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Saudi Arabia.
BILL MOYERS: — there —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Except where there is —
BILL MOYERS: — breeding ground of —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Exactly. Where there is no democracy. And when people are denied the right to express their extreme discontent in a conventional political way with an opposition party and in parliament etcetera, then they will the only place they can do that is the mosque. So that’s been part of the problem, too.
You see when these mosques become just the focus of discontent, and where there’s violence of all different kinds of violence– state violence in society– then– you’re then– you’re not going to get a healthy Islam or a healthy democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Isn’t it true that whenever and wherever one of the world’s great religions took root, women were pushed back down the stairs.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes. This is absolutely true, that in the great flaw of these traditions has been the denigration of women. Wherever —
BILL MOYERS: Oh, you can’t get away with just saying a great flaw. I mean — it’s more than a flaw.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: It was it’s an oppression.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Of course it’s an oppression. And
BILL MOYERS: In yeshivas —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: — madrasas, seminaries, monastic orders, college of cardinals — all male clubs.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: When I say a flaw, it means that there is a great– wound — going right the way —
BILL MOYERS: Right.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: — through our religion that spoils, that ruins the integrity of these traditions. Even my friend the Buddha, threw a little tantrum when at the thought of letting women come into the Sanga, into his order.
He said they would fall upon the order like mildew on a field of rice. And the fathers at the church said some appalling things about women. And now with the world in turmoil and when the what the world needs to hear from religion is the compassionate message which the world needs compassion and at the moment — what the church is doing arguing about whether women can be priests or —
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but, before you came I was reading about the growing conflict in your own Anglican Church back in England about the ordination of women. I mean there’s a movement that says if women are ordained, we are leaving the church —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: — and these —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: — included a lot of women.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes, they do. And one of the dreadful things about this oppression of women has been that women take their own valuations. It’s like people who’ve been colonized in developing countries, who begin to accept the colonists’ denigration of themselves and their race.
Women have absorbed and internalized this picture of themselves as subjects. And yet so often these religions began with a positive message for women. Paul says, “In Christ there’s neither male nor female. Just as there’s neither Jew nor Greek slave nor free person.” All those barriers have got to come down. Mohammad gave women rights of inheritance and divorce, that we wouldn’t have in the West until the 19th Century.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. He preached the emancipation —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes, he did.
BILL MOYERS: — of women. And the women who became his converts —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Indeed. They were the some of the first people who came to Islam were women. In fact the first — you can say that the first Muslim was a woman. That’s Mohammad’s wife who believed in the revelations that he had before he did himself.
BILL MOYERS: And Jesus, you know — much talk in this country about the “The Passion” of late. But what most people forget is that Jesus had women disciples. And that the women stuck with him during–
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes, exactly.
BILL MOYERS: — crucifixion. The men were off hiding somewhere.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: The men were skulking and hiding. And it’s the women who have the first news of the resurrection according to the gospels.
BILL MOYERS: I think the most exciting field of history in the Christian church today is in the first hundred to 150 years —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: — when the early — they didn’t even call themselves Christians. But the early followers of Jesus preached the revolutionary egalitarianism in which women were equal —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: — in every respect.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Exactly. And that was — it was radical. But it wasn’t long before they started reneging on that. You find it even in the New Testament in Timothy and Titus. Not written — epistles to Timothy and Titus — not written by Saint Paul, but written about — as much as 60 years after his death.
BILL MOYERS: Paul has gotten blamed for it, right?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: But Paul is blamed for that. And there you’ve got women being submissive to their husband, etcetera. And this is not what Paul basically —
BILL MOYERS: You find it so deeply embedded in — Augustine, the great-Saint of the church who told his priests to shun the company of women even if they were sick or in trouble. He said it is still Eve, the temptress, that we must beware of in every woman. And Aquinas saw women as biologically defective.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes, he was quoting Aristotle, who saw woman as a failed man. Basically that something would go wrong in the embryo to — and produced a woman instead of a man. I mean this is all terrible stuff. And —
BILL MOYERS: Can a religion be spiritually wholesome if it treats —
KAREN ARMSTRONG: No.
BILL MOYERS: — women this way? It can’t?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: No, it can’t. And this has been — and no, it simply can not. Because if half the human race is being denigrated and they’re also wasting the insights of — think of generations of millions of women who could’ve contributed to this.
Some of the most exciting work in Islam, for example, is being done by women theologians who are making their men folk look at the egalitarian message of the Koran.
BILL MOYERS: Don’t you think we cross some divide when we looked in the river or looked in the stream or looked in the pond or looked in the mirror and saw ourselves as God? Are you familiar with that great chapter of Isaiah? You know where it says, “My ways are not your ways.”
KAREN ARMSTRONG: “My thoughts are not your thoughts. For as high as the heavens are the above the earth, so are my thoughts above your thoughts, my ways above your ways.” It’s — should be written over every breaches — pulpit.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Because so often we think that God’s ways are our ways. God’s thoughts are our thoughts. And we created God in our own image and likeness saying, “God approves of this. God forbids that. God desires the other.”
BILL MOYERS: If he’s my enemy, he must be God’s enemy? Yeah.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes. This is where some of the worst atrocities of religion have come from. Because people have used to give a sacred seal of a divine approval to some of their most worst hatreds, loathings, and fears. Whereas to the great theologians what I found when I was studying for A HISTORY OF GOD the great theologians in all three of the monotheistic religions, Jewish, Christian, Muslim — all insisted that yes, God was personal. But God went beyond the personal.
You shouldn’t speak glibly about God. The — in Judaism you may not speak God’s name as a reminder that any human expression of the divine is likely to be so limited as to be blasphemous. But God should challenge your assumptions not that — you shouldn’t imagine you’ve got Him in your pocket.
BILL MOYERS: Karen Armstrong. The book is THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: MY CLIMB OUT OF DARKNESS. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Bill. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: That’s it for NOW. Bill Moyers and I will be back next week. I’m David Brancaccio. Good night.
This transcript was entered on May 6, 2015.