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Interview: John Tirman, Author of 100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World

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Over the past ten years, a number of books from the political left and right in America have debated the virtues and faults that have contributed to the world’s perceptions of US. Since the World Trade Center attacks, many of these screeds are aimed at dispelling notions put forth by individuals, including a plethora of writings targeting filmmaker Michael Moore, and radio commentator/comedian Al Franken among many others. But few have dug beneath the surface to understand how American self-interest has changed the sympathetic worldview we enjoyed immediately after the attacks into one of very vocal antipathy.

John Tirman’s book 100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World is a realistic examination into this phenomenon. We recently corresponded on some of the critical themes he explored.

Blogcritics: 100 Ways reads like a refutation of right-wing theories on the world as presented by Bernie Goldberg and others. Are you prepared to be targeted by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and other Murdoch henchmen for your views?

John Tirman: This was not written as a refutation of any sort, though I do respond to commonplace arguments made from the right, center, and left. I would enjoy engaging with the Vulpines.

BC: In Chapter Five, you wrote that the WTO was formed post-WWII along with the IMF and the World Bank “to help war-devastated economies revive and stabilize capitalism.” However, the participants at Bretton Woods and at the 1948 conference in Havana were never able to agree on the formation of the International Trade Organization. They could only agree on the framework for GATT, and it wasn’t until 1995 that the WTO replaced GATT. Why the discrepancy?

JT: When one is writing in a popular form, there are shortcuts. This is one (noted as a "wrinkle"), but perhaps I should have been more thorough. I think the book is longer than what Harper Perennial had in mind, so I squeezed a lot.

BC: In Chapter 65, you point out disparities between body counts reported in The New York Times and The Washington Post and the figures reported in The Lancet. On page 170 you write that the Times reported on a “previously unheard-of Iraqi think tank saying that, as of late 2005, there had been 500 civilian deaths attributable to coalition forces in Iraq, which is low by a factor of about 200.” However, a casual search through the  Times archives show that on October 24, 2004, they reported on The Lancet study in an article titled “Study Puts Iraqi Deaths at 100,000” and on July 25, 2005, they reported another story under the title “Civilian Toll in Iraq at Nearly 25,000”. Any comment?

JT: This is a complicated topic, one with which I remain involved. The Times did report the Lancet article briefly, and then dropped the topic. They have repeatedly run stories (like the one on 7-25-05) that had low counts, or Michael OHanlon's low count (on the op-ed page), without much attention — or any attention — to how counts are done, how indeed dead people are dealt with in Iraq. This is a strange gap in reporting, "strange" because the casualties are playing a big role in the motivations of fighters, and odd because there are many public health experts who can explain this topic. In epidemiology, there is no dispute about the Lancet study's methods, whereas all other methods — like that used by Iraq Body Count — are widely known to be flawed. I think that until the Haditha massacre was reported, the subject of high civilian deaths possibly caused by US forces was essentially taboo. That, finally, is changing.

BC: In Chapter 67, “The Self Help Mania”, you emphasize Americans obsession with the self. Do you believe that part of this stems from the consumerist culture and its emphasis on the “quick fix”?

JT: Basically, yes. Much of the book is about the loss of solidarity, or community, in America, and how that leads to other regrettable things. Self help becomes a substitute for the help and comfort of communities, whether of neighborhood, extended families, labor unions, etc. (Interestingly, much of the growth in evangelical churches is due to their grasp of this, and to substitute for it with their own brand of self help.) Consumerism is part of that package. Self help is strongly oriented to consumption of a kind. It is also the same ethos — satisfaction ("improvement") of the self. Quick fix, good point; consumerism and quick fix are both about instant gratification.

BC: In Chapter 56, “Gangsta Rap and the Culture of Violence”, you address concerns about the violent nature of these songs, especially towards women. But isn’t possible that these songs are pointing out the realities of the poverty you write about throughout 100 Ways through the eyes of the people who’ve lived it?

JT: Doubtlessly so, in many cases. But it veers often to extolling those circumstances as values or imperatives, rather than merely lamenting them.

BC: In “Ten Things America Does Right In The World”, you mention fairness as being one of the things we do right. But much of your book delves into how unfair we are, especially when it comes to leftist states and economic domination. Isn’t this something of a contradiction?

JT: The "ten things we do right" was meant to put down a marker — that virtues do exist in the American experiences, things most Americans embrace and that "we" do try to put into practice. I want to encourage those things, not just celebrate them, and one way to do that is to frame them in ways that make sense from our experience. That these values are realized imperfectly is not in dispute. With respect to fairness, you are right to say that the U.S. has been deeply unfair to the developing world in particular. But I would argue that many (perhaps most) Americans, if fully informed and engaged on such an issue, would support better policies. They have been sold a bill of goods, or don't know anything about the policies, and therefore cannot really act on what they do know. The topic of structural adjustment alone is immensely complex. Fairness is a sentiment, a decent one, and it's a place to start.

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  • Fred

    Loved how U handled yourself on Medved today….Well done….You did well to not fall into the traps and twists they use when cornered with facts which do not fit into their pre chosen conclusion.