Category Archives: Transcripts

Lizzy D'Sousa Interview Transcript

MATT JACOBSON: And could you just start out by giving me a biographical sketch -- who you are, where you came from, what you've done, what you're doing now. You can be as elaborate or not, as you'd like. LIZZY D’SOUSA: OK. I am a journalist and educator. I came to New York about 12 years ago. I was born in India, where my family's from. Soon after I was born we moved to Australia where I grew up in Sydney. When I was 20, I left Australia and started traveling and working in Latin America. And somehow ended up in New York, and was already doing radio journalism throughout Latin America -- filing for the BBC and the ABC. Continue reading Lizzy D'Sousa Interview Transcript

Cyrus McGoldrick Transcript

CYRUS MCGOLDRICK: All right. Cyrus McGoldrick. C-Y-R-U-S. McGoldrick. M-C-G-O-L-D-R-I-C-K. Matthew Jacobson: And to get us started, do you mind just giving me a thumbnail sketch, a kind of autobiographical sketch, where you're from, what you've done, what you're doing now. And you can be as elaborate or not as you'd like, but just kind of give me a sense of how you want to be identified. CM: Alright. Sure, sure. We'll do the skeleton-- Well, I guess, currently I am the civil rights manager here at CAIR New York, at Council on American-Islamic Relations. I was born and raised in America, born in Newport, Rhode Island. Grew up in Pennsylvania, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Lived in Connecticut for three years before coming to New York City for college, for Columbia, to go to school at Columbia University. I graduated last December with my bachelor's and have been full-time here for, I guess, about three, four months now, after about a year of interning here in the civil rights department. So other than that, I have been practicing Islam for about four or five years. My mother is Iranian, my father is Irish-American. And I'm also a musician. MJ: How were you raised, in religious terms? CM: I was raised loosely Christian, but mostly-- I mean, open to all faiths, though. My house was definitely a center of all-- my family is so diverse. It's like we have everything from Jews and Christians and Baha'is and Zoroastrians and-- mostly Muslim, but I grew up comfortable with everything. When it came time for me I got to choose myself, and I--there was no resistance at all to that. MJ: And can you talk a little bit about that choice? CM: Absolutely. So, I think for me, the-- I mean, it came after, it was obviously part of a long process. Not for too many people is there just an epiphany where you just, you know, a light bulb goes on, but I always was interested in religion and spirituality. First, more as a phenomenon than as a real practiced ideology. But I really lost my faith in Christianity long before I gained any in Islam. I think that the issues in the world seemed often to go back to religion and that really pushed me away, and really the man-made nature of religion really pushed me away. And so I really left it. At one point I just stopped going to church and that was my declaration. But after some years, you know, I was much more politically motivated than religiously motivated. I think I was much more-- I had some concept of morality but I just thought that it didn't come from religion. I just imagined it was based on some social justice. But somewhere along the way I think there's always that danger of existentialism and the-- for me, I think the-- I guess I won't try to go too in depth, because this will be a four hour conversation, but the-- for me I think it was really an experience of the unity of creation and the unity of God that really brought me back into an active search for a faith and for a practice. MJ: Mmhmm. CM: And I researched all faiths equally. I tried to really give them all a chance and I always really tried to look into them. What they meant, what they said, what they meant in practice, also. And what I ended up with was, more than any other religion, there was a deep, deep respect not just for Islamic ideology, but also for practice, for the ritual practice also. And I saw, very actively I saw, even before I was doing it myself, I saw the benefits that it had for individuals and for societies. And I really believed in the sources themselves, in the Koran, and in the prophecy, and also in the example of the Prophet, which comes a little bit later. I think that a lot of our actions are also based on the living example of the Prophet, peace be upon him. And seeing the goodness in that, too. And that's another thing that we try to demonstrate, to live. So it was a process, it was over some years, but probably even after I might have already identified as a Muslim, I really started practicing. I remember I woke up on the first of Ramadan one year and I didn't even know it was the first of Ramadan [CM laughs]. And I woke up and something really did feel different, actually, and I went over to my computer, and I was working-- I was working at a bar at the time, I was a bartender [CM laughs], and the whole thing and I just, something felt weird, it was a September day and I remember I was like, oh, it's the first of Ramadan. And I was, like, I'm fasting today. And I start fasting and I started praying. And I already knew how to pray, but I started doing it regularly, and really trying, and I started really trying to make my decisions based on what I believed in. And I've really never gone back. MJ: Uh-huh. It sounds like the search was very much like an internal thing-- CM: Yeah. MJ: --but where were you first introduced to the practices and the theology, even? CM: Yeah, I think there's always, like the way my family raised, the way my parents--I think really the way my parents lived is very--sees all religions as equal. And the difference as very much semantic in nature, rather than something fundamentally better or worse. And so we were always taught to respect all religions, to trust all religions, and that the mistakes of religions were not God's fault, but people's. And I think, and even today that's something that I can appreciate. And I think that, actually, Islam has a really good understanding of that itself. Even when you look at Judaism, when you look at Christianity, and when you even look at the modern "Muslim institutions," I think we can see that. The mistakes are not God's, that's for sure. The message was given to us, even though we messed it up somewhere along the way, and at multiple places along the way. So I always had family around that were--they would pray, they would go to my bedroom and pray. And I grew up comfortable with the rituals and conscious of them, with some idea of how they worked, but without really any attachment to them, myself. And for the first part of my life, maybe up until I was maybe 12, 13 years old I probably I would have identified as a Catholic. And after that probably agnostic. I never would have said I was an atheist. I think I always knew that there was something, I just wasn't really ready to either choose one or to change my actions based on what I believed. MJ: Right. Or to know what to call it. CM: Yeah, or to know what to call it that. Yeah. Exactly. MJ: So, now the civil rights work that you're doing now, does that connect with earlier political interests and commitments or does it come out of your religious commitment? Or are those two things so fused that it's hard to even separate them? [CM laughs] Or how would you describe? I guess, how do you get to this office, is one of the questions? CM: Yeah. Maybe some of the, some of everything. I think I always, my parents were always very politically conscious and active, always-- MJ: Active in what particular realms? CM: Both politically, but also socially. I think that there was, they were always engaged in voting. Like, my mother's from Iran, and she was a part of a revolution to overthrow one dictator and that ended up going right into another dictator. And so she was always very conscious of the importance of that, and always instilled in us the understanding-- MJ: What year did she come to this country? CM: So she came literally weeks before the Shah left. She came in January, 1979. So like, it was a very hot time, and my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, they are, they're still there. They stayed. It's impossible to kind of grow up ignorant of that, with--- And my parents also, they're very moral people. I don't think they-- some of like the more superficial elements of religion, which-- and I don't say superficial to devalue them, because I also practice them myself, but my parents never really did. That wasn't really so important to them. But they really had a real strong morality, and a love of God, and a love of people. And they really instilled that in me, and my younger brother, also. We always did community service, we always did, feeding old people, feeding homeless, always stuff like that. That was always so important. But politically it was a little bit harder to kind of put your finger on. As a young person, it's really hard to tell how you can do it. I mean, 9/11 was the, my first day of high school, and—crazy!--as the only person of Middle Eastern descent in a very small town. I was in Pennsylvania at the time. MJ: Where? You were in Pennsylvania. OK. CM: Yeah, and I was only person of Middle Eastern descent in a very white town, in a very homogeneous town. Even Catholicism was a little bit radical for that type of town. You know it's, if you've ever been through, driven through the middle of Pennsylvania, you'll know it's Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and, like, Alabama in the middle. So it was a difficult time. There were, I remember even that year, that first year of high school, that was my freshman year of high school, and there were gangs of kids who would, before they would go to school they would meet in the parking lot of the supermarket with Confederate flags flying from their cars, from their trucks. It was very interesting. MJ: Did people in that town kind of read you physically as racially “other”? Or did people know that--I mean, that you're-- CM: I think it wasn't, people that I didn't know, didn't actually…  It was more people who knew me and who knew that my mother was-- I think a lot of people at that time, they thought Iran was a misspelling for Iraq, also. Like people didn't really have a really deep understanding of what that part of the world was like, and the nuances-- MJ: Right. Or still. CM: And still, also [CM laughs]. And some of the nuances to these identities. But there was an otherization there. In the, just in that, in a very short time span. I think that, I mean, overall I will say that I've been very lucky in my life. That I think people who grow up with another identity, either from the Muslim world or from a specific Middle Eastern or Arab environment, I think people either grow up feeling special for their differences, or they feel estranged. They feel like marginalized for that difference. And I was always very lucky that I felt special. And that was a-- socially it wasn't a huge issue, but definitely was a-- 9/11 was a slight turning point, I think, in that-- MJ: So can you describe those days immediately after 9/11? CM: It was-- yeah, I remember getting calls, and we were getting calls not just from my Muslim family, but just from anybody who was dark, like people were getting calls, like getting flipped off in the street, getting cursed out from cars, people would be-- I don't think anyone, thank God, I don't think anyone in my family was a victim of violence, but we knew enough people who were. And it was very strange. It was a very scary time. Because that day, it affected everyone equally. We were all, we could, we felt more American than anything else. That was shocking, seeing that. I remember when they called us in, they called us out of our classroom to--when the first tower was hit, and this was before, there weren't like TVs in classrooms, really, is so we all had to go to this other room, and there was a TV there, one of those big rolling carts. And they had the screen up and there was a--it had the towers, there was smoke in the towers, smoking. And I thought it was a joke. I thought, I was like, there's no way. I was just there last year, there's no way that it was hit. And I went up and literally, like, God forgive me now, I was laughing a little bit. Like, I went up I thought they were playing a prank on us, I stuck my hand in the VCR to see that there was a tape there. And there was no tape. That was a pretty shocking thing. And I guess at that age I didn't really have a concept of what that loss of life meant, like what that number meant. Because we were still looking at-- I was taken out of a history class where, I mean, thousands of people die in every battle that we study. But that was really, when we really thought about that, when we thought about how people were affected, that was really crazy. And I think it even did change some dynamics in the school that year too. Overall it was pretty, I was pretty fine, but I do remember one young man coming up to me. He was, I was a freshman, and he was a senior. And his mother was my Catholic Sunday school teacher. And I knew his younger brothers and everything, we were close. We were on the lacrosse team, and he came up to me one day, and I was a little bit darker than him, but he was like a real redneck type, he was one of those Confederate flag truck guys. And he comes up, he says, when I'm older, I'm going to have a private club, and he puts his arm up next to mine, and he says, and no one darker than me can come in. I was this little guy, I was tiny. I was the youngest one in my class, I was like, OK [CM laughs], like, just cut to the other side. That was a little bit weird to deal with. I didn't really know-- I think that that might have been the first time that I was faced with it. Like, of course you always hear the slips, usually you hear like little comments and jokes and stuff. That was the first time when it was like one to one, like, oh-- MJ: Somebody just putting it right on you. CM: Yeah, putting it on me. Like, it wasn't just about those people it was you. MJ: And how long, so-- and this, I mean, this could be a matter of weeks, a matter of years, as far as I can imagine, but how long after 9/11 did you feel kind of that visceral sense of fear, that, like, things could happen to you or to people that you knew. Or has it ever gone away? CM: Yeah. I think we, ever after that we were always conscious and my parents were, and like, I'm the older, it was just me and my younger brother, he's younger by about three and half years. But my parents always told us that, I mean, in relation to the government, that the government is made up of us, and that we do have some role in it, but to know, and to live, as if we were always being watched. Kind of an interesting thing to tell a child, but the-- I think it was because my mother came from Iran and she, after college she was working at a Navy shipyard, building, working as an engineer for nuclear submarines, so she had a certain security clearance, and so she assumed that they would have a file on her. An Iranian, like an ex-Iranaian, working on nuclear submarines. But they always raised us that way. MJ: What about your dad? What was his story? CM: And so he was American born. Irish and Norwegian heritage. And they actually met because he was working in the same shipyard, but more on the unskilled labor, on the union side, on the pipe-fitting side. So he probably had very little experience with Islam or anything like that. It was actually when they met, when they got married, excuse me, when they got married, they first got married in the city hall, and then they got married in a mosque, and they got married in a church, in a Catholic church. And they figured they wanted all the paperwork, if they ever went to Iran they wanted to be valid, and they wanted everything to be in order. And I didn't even know that, really, until some years ago. They always figured that we should--I told my interns this today, I said that everything you say, make sure that you're comfortable with it being printed in the New York Times. That was a lesson I took from Keith Ellison, one time. He was saying something, and I think we were like chuckling or something, he was like, hey, everything I say you can put it on the New York Times, put it on the front page of the New York Times. I think that was a good lesson that we can all walk away with. I think that was a big factor in us leaving that year. We left after a year. We left Pennsylvania that summer after. Because we knew. It was a strange town. There was a KKK chapter the next town over. MJ: What town are we talking about here? CM: This is Perkasie, Pennsylvania. P-E-R-K-A-S-I-E. I don't even know what it looks like now. I haven't been back in years. Now every time I see Bucks County, they make it look like a tourist attraction. It's kind of funny. MJ: Well parts of it are. But I've been through the part of Pennsylvania you're talking about. CM: Yeah, right? It's a little bit funny. MJ: I've seen those Confederate flags. CM: Yeah. Yeah, I always see the pictures of the covered bridges, and the trees and stuff [CM laughs]. And it was a nice town, I was very happy with my home, and most of my friends were there. And I think even still that's more my home than Connecticut is. But it was definitely a change of atmosphere, I think. So then I went to the Taft School, which is a boarding school. And I lived in the town, so I just went for the day. It was a very different atmosphere. All the kids are like, it's a great education, kids are already like you're-- I went from being one of the smartest kids in the school to being one of a lot of really smart kids. But also very politically active, very conscious of what's going on. We had an email system where we could all-- we had emails, we had Taft emails. That was huge for me. And like we had a forum, a political forum, where we would debate these things. But it was really in those years that we really saw so many of these post-9/11 policies. Of course, we were battling it out in our political forum on the email system. These were huge issues. I was there when we went to Afghanistan. I was there when we went to Iraq. And those debates were happening for us, even though we had no voice in these decisions. So that kind of turned into political activism during Bush's second term. And I remember as that freshman year, I think it was the day after 9/11, in my Pennsylvania high school, and I said in my history class, everyone was in that patriotic mood, everyone was all, we've got to work together and fight the terrorists and this and that. I remember I raised my hand and I said that I'm worried because I don't think President Bush is smart enough to deal with this. Which, I think it was naive at the time, because now we know that he was smart enough to deal with this. But that was just my reaction. I thought-- I saw him as a dumb guy, and that he would blow it somehow. When I knew that-- now I know that the whole time they had a great plan [CM laughs]. They had a great plan this whole time. So the next election I started registering people to vote, whoever was of age, all the seniors and stuff, I was getting them voter registration cards and stuff, even though I was still 16. And so it was really-- I realized it really-- politics and really the imbalance of power in the world has always been a really emotional thing for me. That's really what gets me excited, that's really something that really bothers me. It's something, even no matter what work I'm doing, no matter how I spend my 9:00 to 5:00, that's something I spend my 5:00 to 9:00 on. And that's something that always really takes a lot of energy from me and gets me worked up. And everything I do, even in--whether it be my music, it's something I'm always trying to stay active, always trying to work and try to educate. But I think what changed was practicing Islam. I think that my first year in college I kind of felt lost in it. In class we would take, we would be studying these movements, and I remember even leading up to Obama's election there was a real, there was a real throwback to the '60s, this real vibe that--even in media we saw parallels to--they were coming out with movies that--I remember Across the Universe, the Beatles, with all the Beatles music, and there's movies about Che, there's movies about all these different, like Weather Underground, there was a 40th anniversary here of that. I remember it was just a really politically active time, but one-- it was like really a movement. Not very radical. But it was a movement, though. And people were really standing up. MJ: Right. Well, the last person I interviewed actually said, “I got so swept up in it that I thought it was a social movement, I forgot that it was a campaign.”  You know, and then there was this-- CM: Yes! Exactly. Exactly. MJ: Kind of the aftermath is like, oh, wait a minute. Yeah, all we did was elect a president. I mean, which is momentous, it's huge, it's enormous-- CM: Well, I think if he didn't get elected, then it would have been a movement. I think if Obama had lost or if he didn't even get the nomination, then it really would have been a movement. Then it would have been a radical, "radical movement." But I think that he captured that attention and then effectively derailed it into--and then normalized all of Bush's policies from before. I mean, better him than McCain, but I really do see that happening. And I think that was a huge let-down. Because Obama was elected and…  It was really just tough. It was really tough to deal with the continuation of these wars. And to see that OK, we did that, but did we really do that, or was that done to us? And so turning that into change, I think turning that energy into change was really--I think when we focus on doing good and we focus on tangible results and we focus on helping people, that leads us in the right direction. When we focus on, like, touching people directly. This is all, I can really only say this in retrospect, because I remember it was one Ramadan. It was maybe my second or third Ramadan. I was fasting. And there was this charity event that Islamic Relief puts on every year and that CAIR actually also helps, they co-sponsor, called the Day of Dignity. And they do it around the country. In every city they'll have like a soup kitchen type of thing, and they'll hand out not just food, but blankets and clothes. Really to send people on their way with a good.. after a good day. And I got an email through the Columbia MSA, I think it was. I didn't really have any friends in the community, I was just kind of practicing Islam by myself and with a couple friends. Really dealing with myself, I didn't really see myself as part of any community here. But I went to this thing and just-- I was alone for the weekend, I was like, let me just, I'll go and do this, it'll be my charity for the day, for the weekend. And I ended up meeting with Faiza Ali, who was the community affairs director over here, at CAIR New York. And she was saying how she was looking for interns, and I never-- I always thought I was too good for internships. I was like, that's slavery. I'm never going to work for free, why would I do that? But for some reason, I'd heard of CAIR and it seemed like important work. It was like, it was really the first idea I had of an Islamic organization that really had some weight and was doing something active. I didn't really have a concept of that. And so I snatched it up. I was like, I'll email you. And we had a meeting, and she ended up--and she accepted me. And I came in and I ended up working not for the community affairs, but for the civil rights department. MJ: That was how long ago? CM: This was just last spring, now. This brings me to last spring. Yeah. MJ: So just about a year ago? CM: Yes. Exactly. Exactly about a year and a couple months. That was really a serious turning point. It was really exciting. It was emotionally, I think it was heavy on my heart, definitely, to deal with some of these issues. To grapple with some of these real serious cases-- MJ: Well, it's been an extremely--of all years to choose, I mean, it's been an extraordinary year. So let's talk about that a little bit. I mean maybe to situate us, for the people who are listening to this, we are sitting in a civil rights office. You are sitting behind a very fat folder of hate mail that this organization has received. CM: Yeah. MJ: There are-- CM: And this is just the last month. [CM laughs]. MJ: This is just the last month's. CM: Yep. MJ: This is in the wake of this huge controversy over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque." And at the early moments of these hearings that Peter King is holding in Congress. So it's truly an extraordinary moment for American Muslims. So do you want to kind of talk about your experience of it? CM: Put it in context? MJ: Yeah, and just-- and how you're seeing it and how you analyze it. CM: Yeah, it's been quite a time to be active. I think that-- you know, it felt like, when we were talking about that visceral fear, it's interesting to think about how after-- I think once the Iraq war kind of settled in, as terrible as that is to imagine, I think Islamophobia kind of went down. I think that there was definitely an image of foreign Muslims as something evil and something inherently bad, but the rhetoric about Islam, especially from our elected officials and from organizations, it wasn't really so pointed. It wasn't really so violent. And it seems that over this last year it's gotten so much worse again. I mean, there was obviously the spike after 9/11, but if it settled in it just went right back up. And I think it's worse than ever. It really does seem it. And I don't know if it's going down. While it is like almost simultaneously we have this intense attention on Islam, it is bringing a lot of people to the religion and is making people look more into it and a lot more people are practicing. It's the fastest growing in the world, not just because of breeding rates [CM laughs], but because of genuine interest. But at the same time, so many other people are getting caught up in the counter culture here, in a very violently anti-Islamic movement. And I don't think it's new. It's the same hate that has been pointed at Jews and pointed at blacks and pointed at Mexicans and foreigners in general. Wave by wave by wave. And it just accumulates in people. But I think upon the election of President Obama, when people saw a black man in the White House, and had an Arabic name, a Muslim name to people. Now that was so foreign to them that people really can't accept that he was born in the United States, that he's an American citizen. People cannot accept this. Despite all physical evidence they're shown, they just refuse to accept it. There's a hump they can't get over. And I think that this has really led to a lot of these other issues. This Park 51 community center, the Ground Zero Mosque-- MJ: Well, it's interesting that you say that, because I went to, not went to, I went to document that huge rally that Pamela Geller led, which was the ugliest place on the planet I've ever been, that afternoon. CM: Yeah. This is on 9/11 last year? MJ: Was it actually 9/11? No. CM: She did have a big one then. It was the day before, maybe. MJ: It could have been. It was huge, though. It was thousands of people. But in, when you looked at who was there and what was written on their signs and the kind of rage that was being vented in the crowd, you just knew that you were looking at a sense of white displacement. CM: Yeah. MJ: And from that day onward I really thought this has everything to do with Obama. There's almost no other way to read this. CM: Yeah. I think people feel like, and they say it openly, that they feel like they're losing their country. I remember that, even when I lived in Pennsylvania, and this is long before Obama, this was 2000 and 2001. This was long before Obama was even heard of. But just immigration policies were making people feel like they were losing their country. Bill Clinton was making people feel like they were losing their country. This was, this has been going on for a while. Maybe this is disillusionment with the '90s or something. I'm not sure, but there is really a real racialized aspect to this fear. And Islam itself now has become a racialized concept, even though it's a pretty raceless religion, and very diverse within it, like most religions. It's like a “colored” other. Like that's the way it is, Islam. And yeah, it's very, it's crazy when you look at, like you said, with the signs that you look at, when you look at the hate mail that we receive. The issues that they seize on, the stereotypes that they pick on, the way that they draw people. Oh my God, you look at the way that they draw our Prophet, and it's amazing to see. It's this, it really dehumanizes people. It's that people from this part of the world are savage, are barbarian. And this is, this has been going on for thousands of years. We always depict the enemy like this. But it's so interesting now to see this, to see Islam chosen. Like you look at the statistics, I know you've seen them all, that 60, 70% of Americans have a negative view of Islam. But that is, 50% out of that 70% say they've never even met a Muslim. But also, that is so strongly correlated with people who have negative views of Jews and blacks and foreigners. I think the hatred is universal for everything that's not themselves, but Islam now unfortunately is the acceptable target for that rage. And you see that from elected officials especially. MJ: Right. Well, so I was wondering how you interpret, so people like Peter King, and then people who aren't elected officials but who have kind of become public figures in this. People like Pamela Geller. I mean are they--how do you understand them? Do they really believe everything that they say or is this, are they opportunists who are just taking this moment to try to--I mean, I just, because I could read it either way and I don't know-- CM: I think there's a mix. I think you're right. I think a lot of them you could read either way and some of them we'll never know. I think it is a mix, though. I think there are-- I think of that extreme minority who are promoting the Islamophobia, not just accepting, because I think there's a vast majority in the middle who just don't know better. But of that fringe that's really promoting this--and actively, people have made careers, huge well paying careers off of Islamophobia and spreading it--but I think there's a mix. I think that maybe there are some people who fundamentally believe it. I don't know why that is. Maybe they see, they see it as a clash of civilizations. I think that there are people who maybe based on the information that they've received, on what they were taught, maybe it was generational, maybe it was early life experiences, they just have this image of Islam as something foreign and something that's coming for us. But then on the other side I think there are people who are opportunists. I think there are people who should know better. I think when you look at the Peter King hearings, a perfect example. A very telling character of this whole drama is Dr. Zuhdi Jasser the--and I say Dr. Jasser because he's a physician. He's no doctor, he's no scholar, he's not an expert on anything, yet he was the star witness in this thing. He said he's practiced Islam his whole life, yet he's made a career off of demonizing the rest of American Muslims. And not just American Muslims but all of American Muslim leadership and organizations that are fighting for Muslim rights. Specifically CAIR. And people like him, I have to think that he's an opportunist. Because even if he thinks that he's doing something good for his faith, if he really believed that, he wouldn't be--because we can look at terrorism and we can look at radicalization, we could look at violent extremism-- Radicalization is a tough word for me because legally you're perfectly allowed to be a radical, you're just not allowed to be a violent one. And so when we criminalize free speech and free expression, that's a very dangerous slippery slope. But if we're looking at violent extremism, and specifically terrorism and violent crime, these are threats. And these are threats with no lines along ethnicity or religion or anything like this. But for him to do so, for a Muslim to do so and say that, yes, there's a large strain within Islam, that's fundamentally Islamic, that is causing this. I have to think that you're an opportunist or a crazy person. MJ: Right. And there's an audience that is so ready to hear that. CM: And the reason it's so perfect, when you look at guys like Zuhdi Jasser or-- and there's a ton of them, the escaped Muslim card they pull-- like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nomani, Majid-- like some of these people. And not to, especially some of the women, not to take anything away from experiences that they've held, but when you turn that on Islam, it's so perfect for this right-wing bigotry. Because now they can have you read the script, but when it comes out of someone's mouth who has an Arabic name and who comes from a Muslim country, it doesn't sound racist. It doesn't sound bigoted. When Zuhdi Jasser says the things that he says in the Peter King hearing, it doesn't sound like it's coming from Peter King's mouth, even though it is. MJ: Right. It is. CM: They're getting paid by the same people. MJ: It gives King cover. CM: Absolutely. MJ: I mean, the same way for an administration and more, people like Condoleezza Rice gave the Bush administration cover. CM: Right. Colin Powell. Absolutely. Absolutely. That's actually a connection that I hadn't really even thought of yet. But I think that there are, we have to look at the financial incentive. Because there's always hate, there's always--and hate comes from ignorance. Hate comes from fear, and fear comes from ignorance. But the acting on them, I think we can really, we can look for that financial incentive, and there's a huge one. There is, I don't think it's an accident. Because Peter King wasn't always like this. Peter King was one of the first Congressmen to stand up for Bosnia, in support of action there. He was never-- and he had great relationships with the Muslim community in Long Island. I know people, heads of Muslim organizations in Long Island, who still fund raise for him. Who thought, they say oh, he's a great Congressman, just not on Muslim issues. And it's fascinating to me, I wouldn't give the man a penny, but this is how people think. Muslims aren't even just obsessed with our own issues, they see him as a holistic politician. But they just say, oh, this is really a bad time he's going through. It's so funny to me. [laughs]  But it helps to put it into context, because he-- it really was after 9/11 first, it was really after 9/11 that he broke with Ireland and with the IRA in particular, because they didn't want to come to Iraq with America. But I think it was after he hosted the Republican National Convention here, I think that he got the, the neo-cons got his ear. I think that they--he saw the financial incentives, he saw the huge amount of money that was being poured into to national security and into counterterrorism, specifically. And I think that's what these hearings are all about. From the beginning to the end these are about money. These are about bringing money to not just New York--and the NYPD is, I think, fully in support of these hearings. And they staff Peter King, they've been advisers for these hearings, which is also troubling. But also the private, these consultants and the outsourcing of national security money, this goes back to Peter King. MJ: So how much is it part of your job to stay on top of everything that's going on in these hearings? CM: It definitely affects us a lot because not just has he, not just because he's targeted CAIR so vehemently, but because he's a New York Congressman. Because he's from our neck of the woods. We have great relationships and coalitions with people from Long Island and throughout the state, and he's targeted New Yorkers specifically. Like in his language, he says, he comes--the only law enforcement expert that I saw on that panel in his hearings was called by the Democrats. Sheriff Lee Baca who said about, talked about how, what a great relationship he has with the Muslim community in LA. But still he keeps making unsubstantiated statements about how he hears from FBI and from law enforcement that Muslims, and he said, in New York City, I hear from law enforcement that Muslims don't cooperate. Yet he won't bring them to the table. He won't bring-- there's no evidence know any of these things.  Every, all the evidence and all the testimony points-- MJ: The other way. CM: Against him. Yeah- points the other way. Going the other way. In fact, disproves what he says. He continues making these things, and so it's an important issue to us. It's an important issue to the organization, because he really tried to, if he wasn't a Congressman, this would be a slander lawsuit, the things that he says about CAIR. If anyone else were called a terrorist, I would expect them to be put in court, and let them defend themselves against their evidence. But that's not what this operation was. This was an effort to discredit the Muslim American community's primary defenders and, I think, remove that shield from the community, so that they can continue their assault on civil liberties. Not just Muslims' but all minority religious and ethnic minority communities here. MJ: He's been compared to McCarthy, for obvious reasons, I suppose. CM: Yeah. MJ: But I wonder from your point of view are there any distinctions that are worth noting? I mean, is there anything that distances him from McCarthy in terms of his tactics, in terms of his political style, in terms of the project that's represented by these hearings. Is there any way that we should be--I mean, is that too simple, I guess is what I'm asking. CM: Oh, I see. I mean, some things I think stick out as very strong, some things, yeah, some things maybe less so. But this is almost more dangerous, I would say. Because back then, I mean it was bad enough that McCarthy was targeting a political affiliation, a political expression, an ideology. An ideology, which, it was an absolute stretch, but he managed to accuse of being anti-American, un-American. Yet now King has taken a religious ideology, and you hear this in the rhetoric of so many of these other, mostly Republican, elected officials, that-- they say that Islam is not a religion, Islam is a political cult. Islam is a political ideology, is a political movement. It's Islam means, all Muslims want to install Sharia law. Now they're taking the religion itself, and making that criminal, and criminalizing that now. Like when you look at the--and this is all kind of the same movement. The project that you mentioned that's represented by these hearings is obviously much bigger than the hearings, and has been going on since 9/11, I believe, if not before. You look at the radicalization report, there was a, the NYPD in 2007 published a report on what they saw as the homegrown threat. And it covered for their agents how do you monitor people, how do you keep track of people who are radicalizing? How do you know if someone is going to be more likely to commit an act of terrorism in this country? And things that they came up with were: practices Islam, grows a beard, hangs around coffee shops, hangs around bookstores, talks a lot about the greater good, stops drinking and smoking cigarettes. These were their signs of radicalization. I can't, I haven't heard one thing that sounded bad to me. And maybe that's because I'm a radical [MJ laughs], but these sound like pretty good qualities in people. Having the beard is your own choice, but the rest of these sounded pretty good. Right? Hang around bookstores? I wish more people would. But this is what, the best they could come up with and what they did, really, is just short of criminalize perfectly normal behavior. Yeah, proactive behavior. And tying it specifically to an Islamic threat. That's the most dangerous thing, is that not only are we monitoring now just political expression, but political expression from a specific group. And even, not just, religious expression from that entire group, no matter what they politically believe. MJ: Right. Or any expression. CM: Any expression whatsoever. Just by being you you're a target. MJ: Because meanwhile we have these white militias in Idaho and Florida and Arkansas who are armed to the teeth-- CM: Seriously. Seriously. MJ: But they aren't growing beards and going to bookstores. CM: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. They might be growing beards, but yeah, they can't read a book. And yeah, these guys are very vocally anti-government, who, these are the guys who put on their web sites, come and get me, they're talking about they have nightmares about these government helicopters, and nobody even cares that they're out there. Like, no, they're just letting them be. Like the week before the hearings, before Peter King's hearings, there was, these five guys were arrested in Alaska. They were planning to murder, was it National Guardsmen or something? Something crazy, like these guys are serious, and they are organized, and they have connections across the country. They are everything that they're afraid Muslims are. [laughs]  And Muslims aren't anywhere close. There's not even-- It's just so amazing. It's like they're fighting the shadow of the real threat. And putting a different name on it. It's pretty terrifying. MJ: When was the first time you ever heard the charge that Muslims want to impose Sharia law on the entire world? CM: It was within the last couple years. It's a pretty new thing. MJ: Yeah. It's a new thing, right? It kind of came out of the blue to me. But I didn't understand. CM: I thought so, too. And I wonder why. And I think it's part of this project, which you see represented by web sites that, not to advertise for them, but I think one of them is called like WikiIslam or something like this. These websites oppose the academic websites and encyclopedic web sites and present misinformation about Islam to people. They'll say--and I think in some way it must be supported by either former Muslims or maybe just Arabs who aren't Muslim, but they'll present, they'll take verses from the Koran, not only out of context, but mistranslated, and then they'll--or they'll take Hadith, they'll take traditions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and then these aren't even authentic traditions. Because a huge Islamic science is authenticating our sources and making sure that they're actually true. And so they don't, they have no regard for that, in fact they'll present the most violent things that they could find and put them on these web sites in a form that people see and they're like, oh, see, I knew it. And context is very important, not just for Islam but for any religious book, first of all, to interpret and to really take the holistic message. And especially in the Koran where we know when all these verses were revealed. We know exactly in what situation all these verses were revealed. We know that there's a verse that talks about war and talks about not surrendering, but we know that this was revealed when they were in the middle of a battle, they were on a battlefield. So it's not so weird, it's not like they're talking about, oh, go get them while they're sleeping. No, this is in a battle. Like come on. And just a little bit, you know, maybe five minutes of extra research would have fixed that. But that's not what they're interested in. The interest is in misinformation, not in informing people. And I understand that. And I think maybe it's from this project that this whole Sharia law thing has come. Because in a way they had to find something, because jihad just wasn't doing it for them, I think. I think that they saw that they needed to pick on a concept that was universal to Islam. And Sharia law is like our--it's such a silly thing. It's like our, it's just a very basic morality and Sharia law tells people to obey the law of the land that they live in, even if it-- MJ: Oh my God. CM: Terrifying, right? MJ: How terrifying, yeah [MJ laughs]. CM: And yet these states, like 13 to 15 states across the country now are trying to ban Sharia law. Which would not only illegalize washing your hands before you pray, but marriage in general. Like these people are so ignorant and the laws that they try to pass, like the, in Oklahoma, the first one that went through, they put it on the ballot because they know that no legislator would ever pass such a thing. They know that it would be laughed out of town. They know they'd be losing their careers on this. So these guys put it on the ballot, because in Oklahoma of course 70% of people are going to be afraid of Sharia law. They don't know what it is. And then I think it was CAIR Oklahoma, the executive director out there filed this lawsuit about it saying it's unconstitutional. And the Supreme Court judge, he must have laughed. Are you guys serious? You guys are about to illegalize marriage. Not just Muslim marriage, but like marriage. Are you serious? This is what you're--this is your number one threat, this is the number one threat to America is ethics? This is like, really, let's really think about it. So I don't know, I think it's because they wanted to take a word that Muslims all agree on, I mean, maybe people have different interpretations of it, but they wanted to pick something new that sounded scary, but that sounded subversive. Because jihad was too, you know that was too easy for them. MJ: Imposing Sharia law. CM: Imposing and creeping Sharia-- MJ: If you don't know a single thing, that could sound scary. CM: Yeah, I watched a video on, last-- I don't know why I do this to myself, it's like my way of raising my heart rate. I was on YouTube last night. MJ: I watch the news to do that [MJ laughs]. CM: Yeah. Exactly. I can't even watch Fox news uncut. Like, I need to have like Stephen Colbert punctuating it. There was some video, of course I'm watching a video about, I was listening to the Koran, actually, on YouTube, and so the sponsored video, on the top, is by the YouTube channel, No 9/11 Mosque, No 9/11 Mosque, is the name of the channel. And this video is about three things about Islam, and I'm like, oh, no. So I click on it. I had to. The curiosity was just too much for me, and so I went onto it, and one of these three things, I can't, it was a long, drawn out, rambling video. But one of these things was creeping Sharia law, and how all Muslims were here to do that. It didn't even pretend to be just about radical Islam. It was about Muslims. [Phone rings] If you don't mind, let me just... […] MJ:  Well, I wonder about this moment that we are in as a society and that, in some ways, you are more in it than anybody. Both as a Muslim, CM: Elbow deep, yeah [CM laughs]. MJ: But as the civil rights director over here. I guess, well, first of all, this huge bundle, which is one of many bundles of hate mail. Could you tell me a little bit about kind of how you understand what it represents? I mean, who do you think it's from? I don't know if you want to describe it or not, but just kind of the kind of world that it represents to you. And then also what is your strategy, or the strategy of this office, in how you combat this stuff. CM: I think-- Yeah. For the first part of that, I think that it is very interesting. Usually these are waiting for me when I come in in the morning. They come on the fax machine. In face, most of these are faxes. And it's very interesting. First of all, when they don't come, I almost miss it. I wonder what they're doing. I wonder what these people are doing instead of sending me hateful faxes. And I hope then, and usually I hope, I pray that they're not doing something worse. It's interesting that most of them, and maybe it's just the people that have our number, it comes from a, almost a religiously anti-Muslim perspective. Like a lot of them talk about Jesus being the son of God and that that's our mistake. That we're going to hell because we are worshipping an anti-Christ. You see huge misconceptions about what Allah is to us, as if Allah is some god different than the god that they worship. And usually, so most of them, I think our biggest fan is someone who sends us Bible verses, and then in the middle of the Bible verses, the typing will cut off and they'll go into a rant. And they go into a rant telling us about how evil we are and what will happen to us in hell. Usually graphically. Sometimes there are animations to go with it. And I wonder, it's a really extreme, very narrow, I hate to even call it religious, view. MJ: But it's kind of a pseudo-theological view? CM: Yeah. But it kind of has, yeah, kind of comes from that theological perspective, as if-- That we are wrong for the religion that we believe in. The other thing is, I think the other side of it is, there's a side that's very just shock and awe. I think it's just like offend Muslims however you can. And that usually doesn't come from a Christian perspective. Usually that comes from a, it's kind of a, like it reminds me of this show Jackass. Just like very, I just imagine like a young guy with nothing to do, he's got no job and he's sitting in his mom's living room, and he's like how can I piss some people off? Oh, I'm going to put some strips of bacon on the Koran and take a picture of it. And it just doesn't really offend me. First of all, it's the English translation. Like, you know, come on bro. And I think guys like Terry Jones are perfect examples of this. Like the pastor from Florida, who--I hate to give him any more press than he needs-- but he, this is a guy who-- and this is, actually I would love it if you made this public. First, this whole show trial that he had last week over the Koran. You heard about this, right? That he actually did it finally. So he holds this show trial for the Koran. He has this imam come from a local mosque, and he stands as the defense lawyer, and Terry Jones is ranting about the Koran, how it's a violent book, and they bring up evidence. Meanwhile, of course, the Koran is soaking in kerosene for an hour, while this is going on, as if there was any fairness to this trial. And then they burn it. Burning the Koran is one of two, the only two acceptable ways to dispose of a Koran. So I hope that someone tells Terry Jones' followers that he is enforcing sharia law by burning the Koran. I think that would be, I think that would cause some great internal rifts. It's kind of that shock and awe factor is another angle from which these people kind of hate us. They just curse as much as they can. They make as many references to pork as possible. I saw a web site today that they were marketing a pig fat gun to American soldiers, as if this would scare away the Muslims much more. It's a very, there's this one email, in this one maybe ten sentence email, if you can even call these sentences, there has to be at least twelve references to pork and pork products and pigs. It's like it's our kryptonite or something. I just don't know how they envision us. The attachments to this, one was an American flag made out of bacon. There's another one of a Koran with strips of bacon on it. I was like, this guy, first of all he's a real pork enthusiast, but also he's just really childish, is the other thing. And I think the third angle is informed by some idea that Muslims are like not just criminals, but like sex criminals. And that like all of our women and children are just abused and molested from an early age. And this is, there's many references to this. There's so many references to like the wife of the Prophet, Aisha, who was married into the family at a young age, but was not --They have this idea that they were like having sex. It's just really creepy, the things that they think about this. Even in some of the religiously minded faxes that we get, they'll talk about sex crimes, and molesting children, and just really weird things. And it's this idea that Muslim men are predatorial animals, like savages. And people are really violently terrified of Muslim men coming to their country and being a part of it. Even Bill Maher on what is it? What's the show called again? Politically Incorrect or something like that. MJ: Right, right, right. And you're talking about the episode where actually it was Tavis Smiley who had to take him down a notch... which was kind of an amazing thing to see. CM: Yeah, and it was like, talking about how everyone I know who dated an Arab man is like, a bad experience. And this is a guy who, I think he's someone, he might just be an opportunist or someone who just likes pissing everyone off equally. That may be the case. The way that they go about it is just very interesting. Not to mention when he told Keith Ellison that he thought the Koran was a hate-filled holy book. The fact that any Congressman, if any other Congressman had to deal with that assault on their religion it would have been over, but you know the Muslim one did. But it's just very interesting, the angles from which they come from. But what this shows to me, overall, on the positive note, what this stack of papers shows me is that hatred for Islam comes from ignorance and fear, rather than any type of political consciousness. I think-- MJ: Or observation-- CM: Or observation. MJ: Or any kind of reality-based-- CM: Or any clear thought. Exactly. Exactly. Because I know that there are people in very high levels of society that profit from hatred of Muslims. And I don't think it's an accident that Muslims are being demonized in America at the same time that they are trying to justify two wars in Muslim countries. I don't think that's an accident. There is a very clear-- I think it justifies two wars, and also support for Israel. It helps to keep people afraid of Muslims and Arabs, who are not even mostly Muslims. But I think at this level among, dare I say, common people, I think that it's a real fringe of people that are really hateful. Most people are just ignorant. And most people don't know. And the fact that such high numbers of people who don't like Islam and who don't like Muslims, the fact that so many of them don't know a Muslim, actually that gives me more hope than concern. Because what that means is that there is something that we can do. It means that by being Muslim, by being here, by being Americans, and by being a part of society. By getting into the media, really important, by getting into politics, really important. By just being out there, by being Muslim and being proud of who we are, that builds a connection with people. That humanizes us automatically to people. So when I go out I usually I'll wear a kufi. I'll wear a hat. Like a prayer hat. And I notice sometimes, sometimes first I'll hear, I'll see, I'll get that look. I'll get that glare, maybe from some older lady, or from some young, like firefighter-type guy, and then maybe I'll just be joking around with my friends, just laughing, just doing something human, something that shows some emotion. And I see people smile too. Looking directly at me. And I know, and I really do believe that it's connected to the fact that we just need to be human. That people need to see, when they think of Islam, unfortunately--For the last 30 years probably the most famous Muslim was Muhammad Ali. That was a great example. That's a perfect example for people think of. I hope everyone thinks of Muhammad Ali when they think of Muslims. Unfortunately for the last 9, 10 years it has probably been Osama bin Laden. Which is great PR for him, but not for Muslims. And so we need to fight that. And the way we fight that, and the way that CAIR fights that, specifically, is not just defense of civil rights, which is extremely important, but that's very reactive. On the proactive side, we need to make sure that we're in interfaith dialogues. That we're building good relationships with our partners across all communities. Making sure that we're some of the people, we're just normal people we're just here. The same things are important to us. We want to have families. We want to raise them in safe places. We don't want anything here blowing up. This is where we live and work. This is where we want to make our-- And most people came here--first of all, not to mention that over 35% of Muslims who were born and raised here, and have been here from the African American community here for hundreds of years. But also so many of the immigrant communities here, we came here for freedom, for religious freedom. Because we like pluralism, because we like the freedoms that it brings. I know my mother is one of them. And I know that many others-- The idea that people are here to somehow subvert this country and its principles, is pretty absurd, and I think that people can be brought to realize that. Through pretty normal activism. Through pretty just very simple things. Just by being in culturally visible positions, I think Muslims make a difference. MJ:  How easy has it been to find those kinds of spaces to just get that word out? Or even to be kind of visibly, to be conspicuously normal? CM: Conspicuously Muslim? [Laughing] MJ: No, [laughing] conspicuously normal, you know what I mean? CM: Yeah. A little bit of both, I think. I think that there is an interesting paradox there, because on one side often we have to force ourselves in, being normal. I mean, it's very obvious, when you look at the news, the vast majority of stories about Muslims are negative. And specifically the more times that you hear the word Islam or Muslim is in some relation to terrorism or extremism or something like this. Whether it's here or abroad. And this sells newspapers. Things like this, this sells newspapers and so I think that most of entertainment, which is what it is, is geared towards kind of smearing Muslims in that way. So its very difficult for the Muslims who are doing good things to get out there and to be seen that way. But at the same time, it's an interesting phenomenon, and I think part of it really started from the controversy over Park 51, over the “Ground Zero Mosque.”  Which hopefully is the last time I ever say that. But I think the media kind of seized upon that intense focus on Islam, because that's when-- I think that was the real turning point, when it changed from being about Muslim extremism to Muslims. I think that was when it became acceptable to talk about Muslims as though all of us are evil. And then the media started saying, well, you know, the media started humanizing us a little bit. I realized, I'm a musician, and I started doing it. I think between-- since last July, I've probably done over 15 to 20 profile pieces of people. Just, wow, Muslims do other things. MJ: They listen to music. They play music. CM: Muslims, listen, they play music. Wow, Muslims do activism. Muslims eating ice cream. These things are like huge to people. [MJ and CM laughing] They're like, wow, what a diverse community! They don't eat their children! It's amazing! So there was, I think that there was like a novelty aspect to it, also. And I think that's, right now, that's kind of what we need to capitalize on. We can't just be complacent with being the Muslim eating ice cream, we need to be the Muslim doing good work. And to extend the analogy, to give ice cream to the homeless. And to be out there doing good things and to to show that. And I hate the idea of proving ourselves to people. I hate thinking about it that way. But I think the important way to think about it, is that as long as we're out there doing real genuine good things, with the purpose in mind--because this is part of our religion, service, activism, engagement, doing good and thinking of the greater good--I hope [Commissioner of the New York Police Department] Ray Kelly didn't tap me on that one-- but thinking about the greater good is part of our religion. We're a societal religion, we're a community-based religion, it is not really an individualistic religion. It's one that is always conscious of what is the best result for society? And part of that is self-sacrifice. So when we have that space, when we have that light, that spotlight. Which we do. Right now, we really do. We have quite a spotlight on us and it's like a glaring beam. But we need to use that as an opportunity and I think that's working. I think that's working. I remember I got, I did a piece for CNN International and they did a nice little, it's a nice little three minute profile piece on Cyrus. And I got emails back from people in the military. I got, on Facebook, I remember a message showed up like the day after, and I saw a guy in like camouflage and with a machine gun. I was like, oh, no. I was like, here it starts. I was just ready for it. Here it comes. And I opened it up, he was like, keep doing you-- keep showing people that not everyone has to be the same. This is a white guy, and he looked like he was in the desert. I was like, this guy is fresh back from killing Iraqis. And, no. He was absolutely supportive. I was like, you know what? This is a good thing. At first I was a little bit worried about the novelty aspect. I didn't want to just be like the token anything. Or to just be someplace because I'm Muslim. But I say, you know what? I think that minds can be changed. And this is the best way to do it. If we're not in politics, if we're not in journalism, if Muslims aren't raising their voices, then everyone else controls the dialogue about us. And as we can see from the last 10 years, that can be a very dangerous lack. MJ: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate your generosity-- CM: Yeah, it was an absolute pleasure. MJ: --with your time and your story and your ideas. Is there anything that we didn't talk about that you wish we had? CM: I don't know. I hope you didn't cut yourself short. Don't be concerned about my time. It's absolutely fine, so. MJ: No, I just feel like that was kind of a-- CM: But as long as you got what you needed. I'm trying to think. We did kind of cover some topics there. And as it goes on, too, if you want to meet again-- MJ: I'd love to. CM: --or if you have other questions, I'd be absolutely happy to. MJ: OK. Well, thank you.

Sheila Payne Interview Transcript

SHEILA PAYNE: Sheila Payne. S-H-E-I-L-A P-A-Y-N-E. MATT JACOBSON: OK. And just briefly before we get to talking about the campaign, if you could just give me kind of thumbnail sketch of where you're from, where you grew up, how you ended up here in Gainesville, how long you've been here? SP: Let's see. I was born in Homestead, Florida. I went to Evergreen State College in Washington state after deciding UF was too big for me. My favorite state is North Carolina, where Paul [Sheila’s husband] was at Duke. And then we were at UCSC. Paul was at UCSC, Santa Cruz, California, and we came back to Gainesville because he was kind enough to find a job in the South so I could take care of my mom, who had Parkinson's. So we have lived here for a year and two months. MJ: OK. So you had really just arrived back here in Florida around the time that the campaign was starting? SP: Yeah, I started actually the first week. It was a blessing because I wanted to get-- the Post Office, I had to take early retirement. There's a permanent a hiring freeze for now, permanent for now. So while I was looking for work, I started volunteering four days a week walking-- MJ: So you were a postal worker here? SP: For 24 years. No, before we got here. MJ: OK. SP: I had tried for a year. Now you have to apply online. I applied to like 80 post offices within a year, in an hour's travel time, and it's the first time I've been able to make two other moves. With my record, I was able to transfer, but even though they begged D.C. to let me work for them here, there was a hiring freeze. MJ: When did that go into effect? SP: That was actually in Florida, it was two years ago. Paul had already taken the job here. He stayed in Santa Cruz for a year after he accepted the job here, so it was too late at that point for me to-- and it never occurred to me that I actually would not be able to get a job. I was offered a job, but I'd already accepted the early retirement. The first time in the 25 years I was with the Post Office that they had offered it. So I feel fortunate. I have a small pension. MJ: So the hiring freeze there, that's a nationwide thing, but it's administered state by state? How does that work? SP: No. It's nationwide, but here it had already been in effect for a year within a 500 mile radius because they had implemented a flat sorting machine in Tennessee. And so they already were stopping. And actually I was offered a job a few months after I got here, well no, about six months. My old postmaster kept me on unpaid leave after I ran out of annual leave, so that I could stay on the rolls and either get a job or be eligible for the early retirement. So that was lucky, because it kept him from being able to do anything. It made his rolls look bigger than they were. But yeah, it's been a shock. MJ: Yeah. SP: Because I was the best [SP laughs]. So now, from making $24 an hour-- I've actually always made more than Paul. Because the year after I had brain surgery, I actually worked 70 hour weeks, and I always have worked at least 60. So I like that. And I like being really active. So, anyway. MJ: OK, so you arrive here in Gainesville. What month is it? SP: July. MJ: July of 2008? SP: Yeah. They had just started cranking up here. MJ: OK, so you got involved with-- SP: The first week-- the Obama campaign. MJ: In Florida, was Clinton still in the picture at that point? Or had it been decided? I mean, did you work during the primary or were you already working on the general election? SP: Yeah, the primary. MJ: So you entered through the Obama organization-- SP: Oh yeah, definitely. MJ: --not the Democratic Party? SHEILA PAYNE: No. MJ: Got it, OK. SP: Yeah. And as a matter of fact, the Democratic Party-- I mean, it's pretty cool here, but it's like the Democratic Party in most places. They love the political part. They don't really-- I mean, candidate no matter what. And of course, we all try to help out, even though we may not agree with everything. I actually am really impressed with Obama. I just read the first book he wrote about his dad and organizing, and that's why I like him. It's not even his policy positions, because who knows if he can implement them. It's like the whole health care debate and whether-- you know, who knows if he is going to be able to get anything passed. I mean, I think he's brillant. And I also appreciate that he was a organizer and that's how he set up the campaign, too. The only other campaigns I've spent so much time on were more local ones, like City Council. I've always liked the going to the door, talking to people thing. But this was like really brilliant in the way-- well, I mean, the internet for instance-- I got tired of going to the office and waiting for someone to give me my assignment every day. So I would just pull it off the internet-- you know the walking map and the doors they wanted me to go to. And then I could just enter the information after I got home in the evening, and they downloaded that every night. So that was pretty cool. And I know that's a nationwide-- MJ: And that was run from Chicago? SP: Yeah. They had all the information. It all went to them. I don't like-- some of the stuff I didn't like-- do you want me to say? MJ: Yeah. SP: OK. OK. So I didn't like-- the big thing was going into neighborhoods and just seeing McCain signs, because locally they were-- and it was a national decision-- they were selling the signs as a fundraising. All the money that he was bringing in-- that the campaign was bringing in. And I know it wasn't just about money, it was if you want a sign then you have be willing to pay for it. But you know, I'm going out anyway and a lot of people wanted signs. And it would have been easy for me I think visually, especially in a conservative area, it's important to see what your neighbor-- the sign they have. Most the neighborhoods I did were in the northwest. I think part of that was they knew I was more familiar since I was new here, but I also think it was the eastside, mostly predominantly black neighborhoods, they put black people there and neighborhood people that those people would know from their communities. And Pat McCullough ran that. I was dying to get over there, but they wanted me over here. Yeah, it was a bummer, especially in the rural areas, going down major highways, seeing-- MJ: So how far out of Gainesville proper did you go? SP: I pretty much stayed-- yeah, I went on the eastside part of the way, but mostly I stayed in neighborhoods. They had me going out towards rural, but no-- like I really wanted to go to Hawthorne or Alachua. I really wanted to go to more conservative-- and they had people already there. So you did what you were told. So I was happy to do that. I actually hit a lot of houses, a lot of neighborhoods several times. So first they were having us go out and poll, which also kind of bummed me out because if I am going to get somebody at home, it would be good to engage them. But they really wanted just to know who they were voting for. It was a check-off. There was like 12 things that you were looking for. One of them was, oh, how are you leaning? It was the whole leaning thing. And I understand that early in the campaign. And you know, he won. It was a brilliant campaign. But still the few times, especially with students, it's not like I thought I could be so persuasive. I think it's important just having someone knocking on the door. I think people, if they know there's a lot of people out there who are willing to give their time, I think that can make a difference. MJ: Right. So we're talking about from July until early November you are doing this-- that whole time in kind of different phases of the campaign. Did you ever get a chance to really have conversations with people about issues and their ideas about the election? SP: Yeah, mostly the students were really wanting to talk about it. And again, I don't feel like I'm that persuasive. And the other thing is, we didn't have a lot of literature until late in the campaign. I kind of felt being involved with more local elections like city council, it was important to leave literature so they'd know that you were there. They didn't want to do that. And it was later in the campaign they realized that it was important to give people some kind of talking points-- some kind of stuff-- to rebuke the stuff that was coming out that the Republicans were saying. But, yeah, especially the students wanted to engage. I met up with a lot of male students, and it was kind of frightening. MJ: Can you tell me about that? SP: Yeah. Assault weapons was a big deal. You would not believe how many 19-year-old men who are students at UF, the first thing they say is he's going to take away my assault weapon. I said, oh, do you have an assault weapon? And they're like, well no, but if I ever need one. That was surprising. It was like very one issue. I don't know. There was such big ideas in the campaign. It seemed like people-- the young people-- would pick one issue. If they were for Obama: It was just big; I think he's wonderful. And if they were against, there was usually one issue, like assault weapons. I was really struck by-- and I kept trying to think about-- I would talk to Paul about it-- if I just was being prejudiced against what I was hearing. But I was really struck by, this is the first area that I've helped in campaigns where the students really voted the way their parents raised them. And doing it in other areas of the country where students were kind of challenging the way they were raised or thinking about different ways, here it was really apparent that they were going to vote the way their parents voted. MJ: So you ran into significant numbers of conservative students? SP: Yeah. A lot. I would say people my age, 52, were for Obama, that were Democrats. At the beginning, they had us just knocking on Democratic doors. And then sometimes, there would be Republicans. They told me don't go to them, but I went anyway, because I was out there so much that I wasn't going to keep passing by doors. And Republicans were really slamming the door, kind of don't come back here, ardently against Obama. MJ: Did you get any observations about the way that race was playing in the election? SP: I think so. MJ: Well, I mean, we all think so. SP: I definitely, when I would go up, especially again, my age, people were really happy about Obama. I swear when I knocked on the door of older white women, they would have this kind of waffling, oh, I'm not sure. These were people from my list, who were registered Democrat and had voted for years, as far as I knew, Democratic. And they said they just didn't think they could vote for him. And when I tried to like talk about issues, they would get sometimes agitated, like you know, I just can't talk about it. I think it was about race. I do. They didn't want to engage on any of the issues. They just said, I just can't vote for him. MJ: So Obama ends up winning the county. Does anybody know what those people did? Did they come back to the Democratic Party or did Obama lose them? What's your sense of that? SP: Well, I don't know. I don't know if they came back. I worked the polls Election Day. I was in a rural area, actually, at the county farmer's market, and there was a lot of early voting, but there were a lot of Democrats in that precinct where I was, who just didn't show up, and I know they didn't vote early, and a lot of them were older, because it was a more elderly population. It was away from the student population. I mean, it's good for me that they chose not to vote, but, yeah, I think they chose to just not vote. MJ: They just sat out? SP: Yeah. MJ: That polling work that you did, did you still feel the clouds of the 2004 and the 2000 elections hovering over those polling sites? I mean since Florida has been such a site of contest over the last couple of election cycles, did you get a sense of that as being relevant to people or is that just kind of past history at this point? SP: Well, I know that I was very impressed with the election officials here. They were here. The ballots, you did get to see them. I was very impressed how carefully they were to make sure everything was done correctly. I think people are aware of it, but I think it's more southern Florida where a lot of the big issues were. I did not hear a lot of people talk about, well my vote doesn't count anyway. Which, when we were living in California, there was a lot discussion about that. I was amazed at how many people, since Paul's a historian and I've read the records, you know, I've been in the archives also, there's a lot of history of people's votes not counting. You know a lot of people-- African Americans-- their votes have always been stolen. And it was like a wake-up call for other people that like, wow, does it count or not? But no, I didn't hear people really concerned. There was abstract stuff on the internet, but I didn't hear people locally talking about, is my vote going to be stolen? MJ: Right, right. SP: But the other thing, the positive thing is at the polls there were a lot of African Americans, I'd say in their 30's, that were frantically looking-- they had moved, not changed where they were to vote. They hadn't gone. And they were frantically doing everything-- they showed up the day of and they had not voted for so many years, they weren't on the rolls and they were frantically-- the election commission was doing everything they could to get people, you know, help them to be able to vote that day. But there were a lot of people who had not voted in years that were showing up. And that was amazing. And it was African Americans in their 30's. MJ: So based on your experience canvassing, you were surprised that Obama took this county? SP: Yeah, I was nervous about it. And especially with the students. I mean it's who's at home? I went at all times of day and the weekends. You know who is at home? They were really pushing in the Obama office a lot of phone canvassing. They had a lot of people in there canvassing. I did some of that from home. I don't like that as much as going to the door. And then they realized the last like three weeks that the response they got-- they can make 10 phone calls in the same time I went to a door, but the response they got was way greater if you go to the door. Because people just don't answer the phone. So they were really pushing getting people out on the street at that point. [Whispers] What was the question? MJ: Well, so then it sounds like from your experience talking to people face to face in your canvassing, that you probably haven't been surprised by the kind of hatred that's been spilling out-- SP: No. No. MJ: --In the recent months, which if you live in a place like New York City or New Haven, Connecticut, it's taken a lot of us by surprise. I mean it was kind of naive of us I suppose, but it's been shocking to see what's been happening around the country: these Tea Parties and the health care debate and just the way-- so can you talk a little bit about how that has looked to you kind of on the ground here in Gainesville in the months since the election? SP: Well, I really resent their using Saul Alinsky's book to organize those. It's like, hey, that's our book. But yeah, you have to say, wow, at least they learned something from the campaign. But, yeah, no, I'm not surprised at all. I really feel like people are so disengaged with partisan politics that it was always about race with him. I thought like the debates were amazing. I felt he showed just how much more together and smarter he was. But here, people didn't really want-- except for the students would want to engage-- I had some Republican men who would want to engage, for a long, you know, they would want to talk for half an hour about why they couldn't vote for him. They talked about distrust. They felt like the stuff they were getting from Fox News was the real deal about him. I feel like distrust was a code word for race, too. And no, I'm not surprised. I think Obama always-- people were always going to use race. If he fails in anything, that he just didn't quite have it. And his background, too. I think his class also. Yeah, I think it's class, not just his race. People were pretty adamant. I had people like slam the door. It wasn't a lot, because people are polite in this community. Like one man who lived with his-- two sisters were going to vote for Obama, and he was just so angry about it, and was like yelling at me in kind of polite way, like he wanted to make sure I knew that it wasn't me. He understood why I was out there. But yeah, he definitely thought that Obama-- he identified him as a socialist then. That he was going to take away everything from the country. [Sound of a packet coming through the mail slot.] MJ: Oh, there's the mail. SP: Yeah. Take me with you! [MJ AND SP laugh.] MJ: You mentioned Saul Alinsky. Can we just go back a little bit and talk about some of the earlier organizing work that you've done? Because it sounds like you have quite a background in that. SP: Well, I worked in the fields growing up so I met Cesar Chavez when I was 15. I heard him speak. He came to where we were working. MJ: What kind of fields are we talking about? SP: Tomato fields in Homestead and other strawberry-- MJ: Homestead is where? SP: Florida. MJ: No, I knew that. But where? What part of Florida? SP: Oh, southern. Right above the Keys. A lot of that farming has-- I was just talking to my dad on the phone about it. Even in Florida they can't compete with Mexican tomatoes anymore. Yeah, so that's what changed my life. And Paul and I met organizing farm workers in Washington state. It was an eight year campaign. So, mostly it's been labor. Well, the group that I was working with when we started doing the farm worker organizing had been together a long time doing Central America work and anti-poverty work. So I'd say that most of my organizing has been some foreign affairs, like Women's International League for Peace and Freedom-- which Santa Cruz has a really radical group. I was surprised there's not one here. So mostly around labor/work issues. MJ: The workers in Washington state, those were apple-- SP: No. It's the apple campaign now. No, it was Chateau Saint Michelle. MJ: Oh, the wineries. SP: Yeah, which somebody should write a book about. MJ: Oh, we're back to grapes. SP: Yeah [laughs]. MJ: So right, when you were a kid that's what-- SP: Right, yeah. Which, that boycott is over. No one was aware of it anymore. And so, a couple of years ago, my son had never eaten a grape in his life. Because he grew up not-- we didn't have grapes. MJ: That was one of the first kind of political moments that I remember. SP: Well, you know, what was really beautiful is that we were successful in almost every restaurant, like Seattle, Olympia, half of western Washington, we were able to get the wines off the ferries and out of the restaurants. A lot of grocery stores wouldn't carry it anymore. And people really honored the farm worker flag. Even though in a lot of places we weren't asking people to boycott the restaurant-- actually was an independent campaign-- it was the farm workers there who had been trying for years to organize, and only affiliated with UFW at the very end when it came time to negotiate contracts. And that's when the workers lost a little bit of autonomy in how they were going to run the campaign. But we saved a bunch of the papers. There's boxes and boxes in Olympia in storage because somebody needs to write. It was a beautiful campaign. MJ: And when was that? SP: That was-- shoot, Paul would have to tell you. MJ: And the grape workers-- SP: In the '90s, but I'm not... MJ: In the '90s. The grape workers at that point, was it Mexican labor mostly? SP: Yeah. Latino labor. And Chateau Ste. Michelle had been bought by-- the whole group of wines had been bought by U.S. Tobacco, to kind of spruce up their image, because it's beautiful. Have you ever been there? MJ: To Ste. Michelle? SP: The Chateau. Yeah. MJ: No. SP: Oh, there's a beautiful chateau that's on the bottles. I think it was to maybe diversify their holdings. But it's so small that it had nothing to do with economics. They had like a music series. And we had workers out there. And it was like four hours from western Washington where the main Caucasian organizers were-- in the Seattle area, where we were based. And we mostly worked on the consumer boycott side of it. And then later in the campaign, we would go over and stay and go into the camps and talk to the workers about it. And that was when we were gearing up for the apple campaign, which was going to be way different. Because it's easy to ask people to choose a different wine. They feel kind of guilty about all the wine they're drinking, but to ask them to not eat apples and stuff was-- So yeah, it was a beautiful campaign. It lasted eight years from the time that-- it had been going on for a long time. The workers had tried at different times. But what was interesting is that winery-- the bottlers-- the inside workers-- were represented by the Teamsters, who tried to raid the workers, right. Raid the union, right at the end, when we were breaking the company. But they had always been union, but they refused to allow any of the Latino workers. They were not going to negotiate with Mexicans or Latino workers. And they were never promoted to inside. So, yeah, the white workers were inside, represented by the union. Yeah, it was beautiful. People went up to Connecticut for the stockholders' meetings where we had nuns. You know, all the typical campaigning. We would go and do Christmas caroling at the CEO's house. It was a blockaded house. It was really beautiful. The first year we did it in Olympia at a big food and wine festival. Columbia Crest gave like half a million dollars, it was a Catholic college, for this food and wine festival and because the CEO was Catholic and stuff. And of course people were outraged. This is for scholarships for the students and stuff. The first year we had eight people that helped picket. By year five and six, we had 300 to 400 people just lined up, just picketing. It was a great campaign. MJ: What was the most challenging aspect of that work in those Washington campaigns? SP: Well, I guess the workers. Because of course, most of them were under the scrutiny, most of them were undocumented. We had to be careful that they were not arrested. There were quite a few arrests during the eight years of that campaign. And I'd say the challenge was for them to not be afraid of being blacklisted and staying strong. But for us, I guess it was to keep the momentum. You know the thing is, like our group during-- OK, it actually started during the first Gulf War. Would that have been in '81? '91? MJ: '91. SP: Yeah. So it was a group. At one point we had a couple hundred people coming to meetings during the first Gulf War, strategizing. That group became Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace. There was probably 30 people who were really actively involved and stayed actively involved. They had been together on other campaigns. And that was the group that really worked on the farm workers. But you know, it kept the group alive because we had stuff to do. And that's what I wanted to say about the Obama campaign, too. They're were very smart about always having stuff for people to do, even the very end. The last couple days, people really didn't need to go hit those houses again. But it was a way to make them feel like they were doing something. I think that's the key. People don't want to keep showing up. It's like the farm worker campaign. Every week some people would show up at the grocery stores. And they came because they knew other people were going to be there. It's pouring down rain. We're getting soaked because we weren't allowed near the front of the store, as an example. And people showed up because they knew other people were going to be there. And the Obama campaign was really good about having something for everybody to do. And I appreciate that because there's a lot of things-- I've been volunteering at the, one of the voluntary stuff I've been doing is at the food bank, and even if you call and they say they need you and you show up, they never have it together. And so people who are busy or middle class or whatever, they want to get stuff done. They don't want to hang out. So the Obama campaign was really smart here locally about making sure they had stuff so people felt involved-- MJ: So that they were doing something real. SP: --to the very end. You know what kind of bums me out though? There was a lot of issues that I cared about. The big global issues I care about like the war, but I feel less able to do-- you know you can get a million people who will march, like during the Bush campaign, and nothing happens. I mean Paul says historically it slows down the momentum of what's going to happen. I'm not sure if that happened during all that anti-war stuff, which was really beautiful. But, what was I saying? Oh yeah, it's like I know he has to focus. The Obama administration is going to be so sucked into what's happening in Afghanistan and stuff. Those kind of issues have kept so many administrations from being able to move forward. It's like card check is really important. That was why labor people came out. I mean, Obama promised that there would be some kind-- you know who's going to do it now? You can't even get those issues-- And I don't know, it may not happen anyway with the mess, waiting for change and the SEIU and stuff. Maybe this is such a mess, labor now. But working in Latino communities like in Santa Cruz, I did literacy work with Latino women so they could get better jobs and stuff. And worked in a after school program with kids tutoring them and stuff. Labor issues are just so important. Like other people, more intellectual people, like you notice the labor historian, it's like everything is not labor, but really a lot of has to do with dignity of work. I grew up that way. I organized in the fields because it really is true that if you don't have a bathroom in the field--you know, that's like such a small thing to have people have dignity. And that's what farm workers talk about. It's not about pay. It's about how I'm treated. Am I going to be paid for the hour I'm driving to get to where I'm working? Am I going to be sprayed? Can I ask for a mask without feeling like I'm going to lose my job? There was so many issues I was hoping that the Obama administration-- health care. Don't you think its been eye opening that-- I feel like he has, he's so smart about-- I mean I don't think he's surrounded himself with the best economic advisers. I mean Jesus, they've already had their chance. Come on. But like the health care thing, and it just shows. Actually, recently, talking to young people, like we've been doing anti-war and pro-health care reform pickets every week, and informational pickets. And young people are really discouraged because they can see that the intent is there to transform the health care system and that the bureaucracy of Congress and making deals, I think it's going to have a really detrimental effect on young people getting involved next time. MJ: If this just devolves into politics as usual. SP: Yeah, totally. MJ: Well, as an organizer what's your response to-- I mean one of the critiques of Obama has been that he seems to have demobilized his huge grassroots organization in a way that the right didn't. So you have these Tea Parties and you have all this kind of weird street level stuff going on on the right, and there's really nothing to kind of counter it or match it? SP: Well, see, I don't agree. OK, so you have the change like that Pat McCullough's involved with. What's it called? But it's the organization that's still organizing for Obama and trying to get people out. And then you have Move On, which does everything on the internet. There's a really active group locally. I don't like the way they do it. You have to sign up. They don't do local issues. They decide what people are going to work on. But they've been getting people out. So I don't think and I'm not sure you think-- I don't know how many people really think that that's like grassroots organizing. I don't care how many people NPR interviews. They say, oh yeah, I just came on my own. It's all media getting them out. And I think it's good that they're going. You know, I don't want to begrudge that they're willing to come out to mass Tea Parties and stuff. I don't think it's grassroots organizing at all. I think it's all the media getting them out. I think Fox News again. It's not just Fox News but-- I mean they have the same equipment that the left does. A lot of it is by the internet. You know, get out. I don't think it's grassroots. And what does that mean that we're grassroots? I mean, I don't think Move On is supposed to be grassroots. I had a big meeting in my house. People wanted to talk-- to try to, about six months ago, Move On wanted to urge green jobs. And a lot of people showed up. But then there was no strategy. The person facilitating did her best. She had great ideas. We're going to break down into small groups. I don't think Move On is effective that way. I think they can get all of us. They can tell us OK, Friday, the 13th, we're going to go and stand on a street corner to hold signs about health care reform. But I was like e-mailing the person in charge of Florida and saying we have these issues happening in Gainesville. We want to do this stuff. We want to use that e-mail list. I have a phone. We want to phone bank. And they're like no, no, no, we decide. We decide what you're going to work on. I think it's the same way with the Tea Party. MJ: Yeah, clearly. Although it looks like something different from the outside. SP: Well, I think there could be local groups. Here saying, oh, let's do this. And I think somebody else is deciding what those Tea Parties are going to look like or where they're going to go. I don't think it's any different than the way we're doing right now. And I think, like the Obama campaign-- the grassroots, which is-- I don't know if it's grassroots since-- that's why I want you to talk to Pat, because she knows the organization. She was at a picket a couple of weeks ago for health care reform. A public TV station showed up. And she would not be interviewed, because she's not allowed to be as a representative unless she gets the message. MJ: That's interesting. SP: You know, UFW did the same thing when we were actually working for them. It really changed, and I love them. Yeah, I don't think it's grassroots. I don't know what to do. Here, OK, so I've never been that interested-- I've only been here a year, so I'm still finding-- we just started going to Veterans for Peace meetings. Not that they are organizing any better, but their lifestyle is more akin to what, like people on this street are kind of upper middle-class. They're Democrats and they're progressives but they're-- MJ: They're from a different place. SP: Yeah. I'll just tell you, I hope you don't teach-- I don't think people should teach about class unless they actually held a job that they were getting-- they were wage slaves. You know, like at UCSC, there was people in Paul's-- and that's just my opinion after being around them a long time and sitting in on some classes. I just think people can't teach about class intellectually. What can you teach about race? Should Paul be-- I don't know-- should he be teaching about African Americans? I think he does a good job, so maybe what I'm saying is full of crap. MJ: Let's come back to the local just for a second. You started out with the postal service and the hiring freeze. Can you talk a little bit about how you see the economic situation here in Gainesville and maybe in the longer run since you were in Florida much earlier and now you're back, like just economically how you see what's gone on in this neck of the woods? SP: Well here in Gainvesville, I have to compete with young students. But of course they're not able to do some of the jobs. I just got hired to drive a school bus, and they probably couldn't do that. I'm still more able to do other jobs that they're not, but I see people-- there's a high crime rate here. It's like dude, if you can't get a job, you gotta eat. You know? It's like going back to the assault weapons thing, digressing again, this year I got my teaching certification from Santa Fe College. It was a community college and for people who already have bachelor degrees. It's an accelerated program. And there was this woman in my class who was delightful. She was probably 25. And she would always try to bring up how you better go and get enough guns and bullets. And people are really afraid. She was stockpiling bullets in case you need them because there's gonna-- And just this week, my dad, who does listen to Fox News, was telling me, and lives in Alabama-- "Sheila, people"-- and actually, I heard somebody else and it was on the picket line and I can't remember who they were-- "people are going to need to grow gardens and they better have guns because there is going to be-- people are going to be rampaging because they're going to be hungry." I hear it here. That's why hopefully you can interview some people in the more rural areas that have a stronger belief that I have peripheral contact with. Yeah, people really do believe that there's going to be some kind of breakdown in society I think. This morning they were saying they are going to extend the unemployment benefits. People resent that. I'm working. Why are my taxes paying for people still. People who aren't looking for more work. And also the bail-out of housing, people really resented that. I heard a lot of people here. And actually people would want to talk to me. On the picket line when we're talking to people, people want to talk about the bail-outs. That's it's really unfair. It hasn't filtered down to them. So I think people are afraid. I'm kind of freaked out, four degrees. Mine is because of health issues, though. It's hard for me work inside. I get severe asthma indoors with new conditions, like the school that I was interning at and that I'm working at. I can only stay inside for a short while before the asthma is really bad. So for me it's like different. I have a lot more-- I could like get so many more jobs than other people, but when you can't even get-- I mean I applied everywhere. You know, places I've picketed before like Walmart because of their labor practices, and I couldn't even get an interview. And so I just don't know. The jobs just aren't out there. I mean there's only so many jobs. So I don't know what people are going to do. MJ: Is there any kind of a militia movement in Florida? SP: Oh, yeah. Oh, definitely. You need to go out to Waldo's Farmer's Market when you get out. MJ: Yeah, I'm going to go out there tomorrow. SP: You'll see them. You'll see them walking around. Definitely. And Paul can actually tell you about that, because he follows the stuff from the-- oh, what's it called-- I give them money-- The Southern Poverty Law Center. So he actually will know where they are here, because he actually reads all that literature. But yeah, oh definitely, there is a militia movement. And I guess that freaked me out because this woman I went to class with who was really delightful, just was obsessed with it. And yeah, as everyone knows, there's now a shortage of bullets. MJ: Because they bought them all. SP: You can't even get them! And they're like, see! You can't even go to Walmart and buy your bullets. MJ: Wow. SP: Yeah. I mean I'm really blessed. I'm glad I didn't know that the post office wasn't going to pick me up or else I wouldn't have come. I would have maybe chosen to wait to come and take care of my mom because now I won't have to regret that because who knew she would die so quickly. I don't have to work financially, except we help-- we give a lot of money away. We won't starve. We won't have to sell our house. We won't starve. But as a person who's like defined by work, I was the best mail carrier every place I worked. It's like really freaky to me. So I think it's more than just economics. I think it's like even people who have never-- to come to Gainesville from a $25 an hour job and be applying for $8 an hour-- even people making $8 an hour, it's important to them that they have that work. Like my son works at the movie theater and they've cut. He always seems to get five days because he'll do maintenance or whatever. But they've got some people working one day a week. And then if it's slow, they send them home. Now a lot of them are students. Gainesville is particularly hard because of all the students. If they're going to hire a waitress, they'd rather hire a young-- this sounds so bitter-- a young, beautiful student than an older person who may have more experience, because that's, a lot of the clientele are students so I get it. MJ: And they can pay them less. And there's a whole bunch of other stuff that-- SP: Yeah. I'm like, yeah. I was Labor Organizer of the Year in Washington state one year. And I actually took that off my resume a couple of months ago. I've gotten all these awards for different things and I thought, you know, maybe I should just take that off. MJ: Walmart is probably not going for that. SP: I don't know how carefully they're going to look, but I should really take that off. MJ: Well, I'm really grateful to you for taking so much time to talk to me. Is there anything that we didn't discuss that you feel like you would like to? SP: OK, let's see. Assault weapons-- I guess I didn't have that much-- I always worked 60 to 70 hour weeks, so I wasn't this involved with any other campaign, but it seemed to work. I thought it was brilliant the way they did it. Some of the stuff I kind of bucked against like I thought there should have been more dialogue with people that we met up with for the next time. I'm always thinking about oh, the next campaign or other issues. MJ: Right. Building something. SP: Right. So they were definitely into just getting information from them. Don't spend a lot of time. I felt like I could what I want, because I think so much more time than other people and I was way faster. But it might have been useful now, but maybe not. Maybe that stuff would have all been forgotten when it came down to it. I think people, because of the economics, I think everybody's afraid. My little sister in Alabama who owns her own business is afraid. Everybody's afraid they're going to get laid off. That may override anything else. And I think with Obama and the people in charge of the economic part of it, maybe I just don't understand it well enough. But it really sucks they have the same people. But you know with Clinton, like we were talking about, with the book that just came out and stuff, that he does not regret the whole welfare [reform]-- how that came down. And I know at the time our group was doing, actually the kind of subcommitee, even though they weren't really committees that worked on the welfare reform, the group that I was involved with in Olympia-- there's still tent cities and stuff. He does not regret how that came down. And the same thing with NAFTA. MJ: Those were huge turning points. SP: Yeah. MJ: Frankly, I think one of the real turning points in the kind of tenor of national politics in the last 20 years was the Lanny Guinier nomination. When he just let the lie stand—and backed down from it [the nomination]-- he emboldened a whole different kind of politics. And that's all we've seen ever since. SP: Wow! Seeing that it's at that point. I hate those politics. MJ: I know. And it's hard to know how we can recover from it. SP: Yeah. Maybe there's no turning back now. MJ: Yeah, I don't know. SP: Well, that's why it would be really good-- one thing, Pat could have given you names, I really was hoping you could interview some of the older black people from the east, the communities there-- MJ: Well, I may just have to arrange to come back. SP: Because they've been doing stuff a lot of decades here. Actually, Paul should have told you Joelle, too. Did you hear Joelle's name? MJ: Uh-uh. SP: Joelle would be good. I don't think he was as involved in the campaigns. He had health, he had something happen, which they thought was a stroke but now they found it wasn't, at the time. I mean if you could talk, because they have been in the Gainesville community forever, in a rural area. I really wanted so badly to work in the black communities and also on campus. They had young people on campus. Just because I like their energy. Yeah, that would be interesting if you could try to hook in. MJ: Maybe I can arrange to come back and do a second round. SP: Well, you'll have other people. MJ: Yeah. SP: But maybe we could-- if you do decide to come back, I could try to set up those interviews for you so that you could bing, bing, bing, which if you ask Paul how he did it when he went, they did a lot. MJ: Yeah, I'm going to be talking to him later today, so I can get some tips on just the logistics of this. SP: He really spent a lot of time. But then, his was-- even though you have it set up here because of the Democrat community-- but his was, Paul was always interested in labor, so he could go to try to connect with labor people. After a while, he just had people who would move him on. They would call-- MJ: One thing. Right, right, right. SP: Well, good luck, man.

Jimee Lowe Interview Transcript

JIMEE LOWE: Jimee Lowe. Actually it's James H. Lowe, Jr. I go by Jimee. I am 52 years old. I'm an Army brat. I'm a veteran of the United States Air Force. I guess I call home Eufala, Alabama. I'm a product of integration. I was a guinea pig in the '60s. My parents put me and my sister into an all-white school. So I guess I've experienced racism just like most people, but maybe a little bit more because I was thrown directly into it. MATT JACOBSON: That was still in Alabama, those years? JL: Alabama, right. So I finished high school, and I integrated through the first grade in high school. My father was in Vietnam at the time. In fact, he had two tours in Vietnam. I can honestly say I was really proud to see a black President. I wish my grandparents were around to see it. I thought it would never happen, but it did happen. It was good to see it. I think it's kind of caused a little upheaval with some of the networks on TV like Fox. I always jokingly say Fox is getting back for all the years of Living Color. So that's what I kind of say when I see Bill O'Reilly and Hannity & Colmes. And the new idiot I can't think of his name. Glenn Beck. MJ: Oh, Glenn Beck. JL: Yeah. So that stuff is kind of -- And I knew that was going to start happening. Even my father talked about it, that he'd have problems. But it's good to see some of the changes that have happened in America. I'd like to see more. I'd like to actually see Obama get into -- I'm really big into civil rights -- some of the cold cases that have happened that the presidents in the past have not really been interested in opening up. I'd like to see some of those things happen. I do worry about the President as well as Eric Holder, some of the statements he's been making. And I think we're ready for change, but a lot of people don't want to change. And they're going to do as much as they can to stop change, I believe. And even to the point where they're exciting a lot of these nuts. And hopefully nothing will happen, but I do worry about the stuff happening. Kind of like the Kennedy brothers, but a different type of brothers, I guess in another aspect. But I actually am doing a presentation, I don't know if you know that, for the Day of Absence, for the Day of Presence [a “diversity” event at the college where Lowe is an administrator]. And I want to actually include some of the things that Eric Holder spoke of in his speech [at the 50th anniversary conference of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee]. And I don't think he would have done that, to be honest with you, if the President hadn't been black. I was glad to see him do it. Because people aren't really used to seeing black men expose their manhood, for lack of a better term. And to speak out on things that they normally wouldn't speak out about. Like Colin Powell was kind of a politician -- he would never speak out. But I have Colin Powell on my film talking about race. Something you normally wouldn't -- it's kind of taboo for politicians to talk about those areas. But that's kind of my take on what's been going on. MJ: OK. Can we go back over--let's put on the breaks a little bit and go over this territory kind of more leisurely. JL: OK, sure. MJ: So let's go way back to those childhood years in Alabama that you were talking about. And maybe some of the things that you remember. I mean you called yourself a guinea pig. JL: Right. MJ: Can you kind of put yourself back in your own child's perspective on the way the world was changing around you? And how you saw it, how you and your classmates, black and white, were responding to these things. But also maybe some differences that you saw between the adults around you and the way that the kids were thinking about these things. JL: Well, when I say back then, it was me and my sister were the only two blacks in the school. MJ: Oh, OK. JL: We had the maids and the janitors and the cooks in the school were black. But my first year we were the only blacks. And we had to actually walk through, back then, the white projects. On that note, have you ever heard of Eufaula, Alabama? MJ: No. JL: Eufaula, Alabama sits on the border with Georgia. It's Marilyn McCoo [singer from the 1960s musical group, The 5th Dimension]-- MJ: Oh, OK. JL: --her grandfather was the first black doctor in my town. Dr. T.V. McCoo. George Wallace is originally from -- you know who George Wallace [segregationist governor and presidential candidate] is? MJ: I do, indeed. JL: He was originally from my town. He was originally, as a matter of fact, a judge in my town and in my county. And I think a lot of the racism mainly came from the parents. And that was one thing my grandmother would always say. She was extremely afraid of white people. And she would always say once the older white people died out, things would get a lot better. And it did get a lot better. A lot of times when you were at school, the white kids would start speaking. When I first got there, I'd walk down the hallways and the white kids would get up against the wall. Sit down to the lunchroom table, everybody would get up from the table. You would hear nigger jokes in the first grade. I heard them all the time. There was this one kid, it was like it was his job to razz me every day. He'd pronounce me a free nigger everyday. Kind of like Abraham Lincoln. This was, like I say, in the '60s. But back then and then when I finally graduated from high school, our prom was segregated. And still to this day pretty much, in my town, we have a black graveyard, we have a black funeral home. They have the white funeral home, they have the white graveyard. I think maybe in two incidents where they've mixed where they've had white people in a grave, one was this guy's lover, and the other one was from slavery, that the master buried his servant next to him because he wanted his servant in heaven. And you can go right to my town and I can show you the grave, and this is all put on his grave. So that's kind of the mentality I grew up with. Now on Facebook, a lot of people that wouldn't even talk to me are contacting me because they have kids now. And I guess they don't want their kids to think that they were that way and they're changed now. They're not their parents. And there's the same thing when you were downtown. The little white girl that would every once in a while speak to you in class, and when she was with her mom she was afraid to say hi. So you got that type of stuff. MJ: And you learned how to read it. JL: Oh, yeah. Like I said, I grew up with my father in the military. And that was one of the reasons he didn't want, when we moved South, to go to the black school. On our first day of school, he took me and my sister to the black school, and he asked to see their books. And then he took us to the white school, which was actually right up the hill from us, and the black school was on the other side of town. And then we went to the white school, and he asked to see their books. And he saw that their books were brand new and nicer. And he said, well, this is where you're going to go to school, not taking into account what would happen to his children. He just was interested in that they had new books. And he wanted to, I guess, flaunt his-- I won't say flaunt, but-- he wanted to exercise his rights for his children to get a better education. That's why I believe he-- but it didn't really work out that way. It's kind of hard to get an education when people are spitting on you and they're putting you in a remedial reading class when you can read better than anybody in the class. So that's some of the things they asked -- You know, also changing the subject, I heard you were a big Jimi Hendrix fan. I actually brought a few things for you to check out. MJ: That's great, thank you! JL: But that's pretty much the way I grew up. And I've kind of made it, I guess, a mission to educate people on race. And so that's been one of my things. I've kind of combined music and African-American history together to try to tell a story. And it's not like the Tuskegee Airmen or any of that stuff. It's the graphic stuff, like lynchings and stuff like that. And I wanted to kind of show, compare it with the blues. And I also brought you a copy [of Lowe’s documentary, Red, White and Blues] to take with you too, to check out. MJ: OK. JL: But I redid “Strange Fruit.”  And I wrote a song called "Red White and Blues." I wrote it after I saw George Bush talking about the "axis of evil." That's what kind of inspired me. And they were talking about looking for terrorists, and I thought about all the terrorists from the '60s that had gotten away and the cold cases filed. And so when I made this film, I actually had problems even making the film. When I started sending it around to a bunch of people, and all of a sudden I started seeing all these cold cases being reopened. MJ: Do you remember, going back to the '60s, do you remember the first time that you were aware that there was a movement afoot that might really change things? JL: Oh, yes. My father is a very peaceful man, but he's always kind of looking for things. So he had this Malcolm X grass roots. I can remember when calling a black person black was a bad thing. And even back then I didn't want to be called black then. James Brown's "Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." The Afros, the dashikis. And Roots, I think, really was a big inspiration for black people to start -- you start getting away from the Billy's, Johns, and James'. You start getting Abdul, Rakim, Shaniqua. The things that people make fun of now. But there was really, black people trying to claim their identity. Or the whole Back to Africa movement, I remember that first hand. As a matter of fact, I got really excited. Saturday on BET [Black Entertainment Television], they were showing, they were finally releasing Soul Train DVDs. And it's like nine and you're seeing the Afros and the Afro Sheen and Black History month, and they had Frederick Douglass. I remember those commercials about Afros. And I said, man, this is so cool that somebody has finally got a clue to release this stuff. And they came out with the Midnight Special. If you don't mind me asking, how old are you? MJ: I'm 52. JL: I'm 52, too. MJ: Yeah, yeah. JL: I just turned 52 in March. So since then all those things kind of really said, well this is good. And also, too, the younger generation of black people aren't playing instruments. And so that's kind of become a void. And you don't really see enough of that to inspire people to play instruments. And so that whole, it's like the music has kind of died. And even the content of what we sing about is not as powerful as it used to be. That was the more message oriented. And even the message oriented stuff, a lot of times, won't even get played, which is bad, too. I've seen the change in BET. You know, BET is not the quality that it used to be. I had seen BET go through its period with Comic View, where they were dropping the N-word. And then when they refer to white people, they refer to white people as white people. And they refer to each other, ourselves, as nigger. And every other word was this and that. And there were comedians. And finally somebody got a clue. Hey, we need to stop this. And it stopped. But even comedians today still do that. It's like if I say that about you, then you're going to draw back. But if I talk about myself, then you'll listen. So if I refer to myself negatively. And you hear it in tons of hip hop. Every other word. And then its taken on -- we tried to kill it, and they're bringing it back. MJ: Can you talk about, in generational terms, I mean let's talk about, what is it, maybe, basically like 50 or 60 years of historical time, in which these, too many things have remained the same, but a lot of things have changed. JL: Right. MJ: Can you talk about it in kind of generational terms. In terms of the adults that you grew up with. Your elders. Then yourself, and then the younger people. Either your children if you have them, or the students that you work with. How would you describe these kind of glacial shifts in American racial understanding in generational terms? JL: The older generation, like my grandparents, they were really more afraid to talk about it. And I always saw them as being more passive, I guess. And then my parents' generation and my generation -- My parents' generations were the ones that kind of started the ball rolling. And then my generation and part of my parents' generation were the ones that kind of said, hey, and they're the ones that remember it. The younger generation has never really experienced it, I mean really experienced it. So they really say, well, there's no problem. And so a lot of this stuff is kind of just stuck in that environment. And when they're angry, they're taking it out on each other. You know what I'm saying? And if you look at the younger generation, it really seems like they're really pissed off. Even when you go out to a club, it seems like everybody is so tense. And the first thing-- in my generation, if we got in an argument, we'd fist fight. And the next day we're friends. This generation, the first thing they're going go to do is go get a gun. And even their games that they play. We went out and played baseball, we played basketball, stick ball, chess. We didn't sit down to the controller shooting cops, or raping a prostitute and then getting points for raping a prostitute and killing her afterward and getting points. There were no games like that for us. And even, I can tell you what the second form of slavery was-- the 80s when crack hit. Crack totally changed the environment. And I would say that was a big part of it. The neighborhoods went from being neighborhoods to ‘hoods. You had a large amount of pawnshops pop up. You had crack babies. AIDS. The disrespect of women. All that came along. Your welfare system really blew out of proportion at the time. And I can remember people losing their houses, losing their cars behind crack cocaine. I can remember when cocaine was considered the rich man's aspirin, and you didn't see it in the neighborhood. And then all of a sudden-- and I was in the Air Force too. So I knew when they were saying that the government brought this shit over there, they did. I knew. I was on Air Force bases when cocaine was on Air Force bases. And I knew where to go get cocaine on an Air Force base. So they can say all that bullshit about it wasn't -- it's a made up, conspiracy. That's bullshit. I know first hand that cocaine was brought in at the time. I knew people that were getting put out of the military behind cocaine. MJ: What were the years that you were in the military? JL: I was in the military from 1979 to 1992. So I know first hand. And they can say that the government had nothing to do with it. They did. But that's what really, really destroyed, I think, the black family a lot. And then the prison system. The three strikes law. And then you had the mentality, too. You would see young black men posing like they were on vacation. They're in khakis and they're in prison. Then the sexual assault, all that stuff, went on. Really bad during the prison era, and then people were getting out of prison and bringing that stuff home. And it seems like my generation has more respect for the older generation. The younger generation here doesn't really have a whole lot of respect for this generation. And it seems like a lot of times because a lot of people from my generation won't go to the boys' prison and talk to them, and tell them, hey there's a better way to do this. No, they don't have that mentor. And all those after school programs kind of depleted. They're not around for anybody to mentor or talk to. So they're not really getting a whole lot of that. And that's what I can see with the generations. My grandfather talked to me. My parents talked to me about life. They talked to me about getting ahead. And that was their goal, was education. And a lot of that's not really pushed with the younger generation. MJ: Where did you go after you left Alabama? JL: I went to Tuskegee for a year. Which is Tuskegee, Alabama. And then after that my girlfriend at the time got pregnant. And I married her, in California. And then I went to Iceland. I was in Keflavic, Iceland for a year. I was there when Reagan came with the Summit. And then from back there, I came back to California. And I got out in 1992. So, I'm sorry, my first assignment was in Montgomery, Alabama, Maxwell Air Force Base. I was there for four years. Then after that four years, I went to Edwards Air Force Base, which is in Lancaster, California. From Lancaster, California, I went remote to Keflavik, Iceland, Naval Air Station for a year back there. I came to march and then I got out in '92. MJ: And then since '92? JL: Since '92, in '93 I moved up here. I've been here, this time, 10 years. I moved back to Alabama for two years in '96. So I moved back to Alabama for two years. I worked for a boys' prison. There, I got tired. I felt like I was locked up most the time, talking to them, trying to show them a different way. I got tired of that. And then I met a woman, I moved back out here, and I've been out here for 10 years. MJ: We talked about social change in terms of historical time, or change over time. JL: Right. MJ: What about geography? I mean, you've traveled a lot. I mean, even in the same moment, how much difference is there between Alabama in 2010 and Washington state in 2010 or California in 2010? Do you see a huge variation in those terms still? JL: Yes. Alabama has changed a hell of a lot. When I was there, it was black and white. Now we have a large Hispanic population. I don't even think people in Alabama knew what Chinese food was, to be honest with you. We have two Chinese restaurants. There's two Mexican restaurants. There's Indians that mainly have the hotel chains. So you see a lot of East Indians, which actually caused some bit of a trouble in the South. Because a lot of people weren't used to it. So the people that are normally discriminated against would be black people. And now they were doing it to Mexican people. And the sad thing about it was a lot of the black people have forgotten what happened to them. And they're trying to do the same thing. And if you look in California, now there's a thing between blacks and Mexicans in California. There's a little rival between the gangs. But it's spilled over into the regular population. So that's the stuff you see. That there is aggression. And like I say, it seems like there's a lot more hostility. I think also too, with the police. The thing with the police has kind of come to a head. I don't know if you've watched here that there's been -- My cousin was killed by the cops. So I have kind of a passion about that too. He was the 50th person to die from a taser, at the time. He was 42 years old, an ex-cop himself. He flagged down the police for help. When they wrote it up, they wrote it up as if he was some cocaine, marijuana crazed person that the cops couldn't handle. But he flagged them down and asked them for help. They started immediately trying to handcuff him, I believe was the thing. And they tasered him. She ended up tasering him eight times. It fried his liver, it fried his heart, and it fried another part of his body. And at the time, he was, like I say, the 50th person. Now they're up to 260 something, I believe it is. And my aunt sued them, and she won the appeal. They said it was excessive force. There's no question it was excessive force. He was handcuffed, and they have him actually videoed. And so they're saying-- he was dead when they took him in, but they said they had to hook him up to see. MJ: Where was that? JL: This was in Orlando, Florida. And he was, like I said, the 50th person. He was a cop himself, he used to be, back in the day. And he stopped them for help. Somebody had supposedly stolen his car and was shooting at him. And they said he was acting erratic. So he ended up dying, because he was acting erratic. And I ask people, I say, how many times have you heard of a white person stopping a cop for help and dying? And racial profiling, that's pretty much the same. Things have gotten better. You see, even on TV, TV has gotten better, but it's gotten also a little wild, a little perverted. With racial things, on TV you'll see mixed couples now. It used to be normally if you saw it, it would be the white man and the black woman. But now sometimes you see the black man and the white woman. So you see that stuff. It's become a little too loose.  I don't know if you ever watch -- I watch MTV. I'm, like I said, I'm a music junky. If you were to go look and walk in my living room, I've got two guitars in my bed that I sleep with. My living room is basically a music store. I've got a Marshall stack. I've got Mesa Boogies. I've got keyboards. I've got a full drum set. I've got bongos, congas. I collect, eat, sleep, and live music. And I figured if there's something that I like, I can combine the two passions. And history has always been kind of my thing, too. Black history, or American history has always been my kind of thing. So I figured if I combined the two together, I could educate people and call it edutainment like Harris One. So I combine the two to do these things, and to talk about the things that people don't want to talk about. Or the uncomfortable things that people don't -- MJ: Can you talk in more detail about the kind of work that you're doing? And also maybe how you gauge whether or not your message is getting across? What's the thing that you're hoping to see? What's the thing that when you see it, you know that you're there? JL: When I get feedback from people. And even if it's negative feedback, any kind of feedback to me is good. I can present it angry. And if I present it angry, no one's going to get anything. They're just going to see me as the angry black guy. And they kind of see that anyway. But if I give it to them in a nice, comfortable tone, where I'm not shouting or anything, they tend to get it a lot better. And when I present pictures of people posing with bodies and doing all these things, I tell them I didn't make these pictures up. I didn't take any of these pictures. I said all this stuff is stuff you can go right to your library, if you want to see it, and pull it down. I've gotten all kinds of different -- like I say, I've been doing this off and on for 10, 15 years. And it started out as just a slide show. And I would do it sometimes in my house, and people would bring their kids to see. And back then it was just a CD with some music, with me playing some blues chords and soloing over the top of it. Then I added speeches from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. And I pulled up the Martin Luther King -- not the "I have a dream" speech, but the angry Martin Luther King. MJ: Yeah, the "My government is the purveyor of violence." Right, right. JL: Right. That type of stuff. The stuff that people normally don't talk about when they mention Martin Luther King. And I basically took the two and tied them together and showed how similar they were. Their tactics were a little bit different, but they were basically saying the same thing. A lot of people are interested in hearing what you have to say, and want to learn. And there are people that don't want to. And those are the people that normally go into the other sciences. The stuff they don't want to hear. And then you have people that react, act on it. And it's good. It's like, we had a riot here. Do you know who Dead Prez is, by chance? MJ: Mmhmm. JL: We had Deb Prez here and they had a riot where they flipped over all the cars. And I was telling them, I said now, they use excessive force. And see, we've had plenty of incidents with the students and the police here. So they came in. First of all, they arrested the guy that had nothing to do with it, which was a black guy. And this is something you very seldom will see is white people standing up for black people. And I told the kids you know what, it's cool that you did this. You stood up. But if you'd have been black, somebody would have accidentally gotten shot. And that's normally the way it works. And me saying that is "no, no, no." But it's true. I said I've seen it happen a billion times. The guy in the BART thing that Cynthia McKinney, was just here. She showed the BART thing. And I said I remember in the '70s seeing the Ku Klux Klan on national TV get out of their cars -- this was in North Carolina. MJ: With that whole communist parade thing? Yeah. JL: Yes. Get out of their cars, show them on film shooting these people down point blank. And every last one of those people got off. And I pulled out old footage of stuff from the Civil Rights, from the '30s and '40s with Jesse Jackson. They did a re-enactment a few years ago. I have some of this stuff. I brought stuff to actually show you if you want to see it. [JL and MJ look through a wide assortment of things that JL is pulling out of his briefcase—CDs, records, newspaper clippings…] JL: … This is what I wanted to show you. This was a cold case. MJ: Louisiana Weekly. JL: They never did find the killers of that. MJ: Oh, I remember this. The Morris Fort Bridge, 1946. JL: Right, so that kind of got reopened and never really happened. And even doing this type of stuff, a lot of times it causes me trouble. Actually, I got suspended from work for like two weeks here, behind some of this stuff. And I ended up having to fight the college. I fought the college, I beat them. They had to pay me two weeks' back pay. Then I went after the union who refused to represent me. I won. And then I beat them, and they had to give me my money back. MJ: What was the suspension about? JL: They said that I was harassing people. And it always happens right after I show this film, I always have a problem. There's a thing on cultural appropriation. I address a bunch of different issues. That deals with the physical violence and also deals with the mental violence. And I took clips of different stuff that I thought was important. And I tied some in. And then there's some stuff that's pretty controversial in there, too. I do some stuff in blackface, and I do some stuff in whiteface. But it's “Strange Fruit,” is what I do. And as I say, it's pretty graphic, but it's history. MJ: Yeah. Well so I have a bunch of questions about this. First of all, to be clear on it, what was the language they used to articulate what they thought you were doing -- JL: They said-- I have this -- this is the court case. I have sent stuff to Julian Bond. I was a little cocky with it, and his response was a little negative. Because he was doing a speech, he did a speech for the NAACP. And I wrote him and said it seems like somebody's seen my film and then followed the sequence. I'm thinking well, hell, he's part of history, too. He's been around a lot longer than I have. And he knows the sequence, and you basically follow the sequence. And I guess I was a little arrogant, a little cocky. I said, well, I think you've watched my film. And I know he has. But he was thinking that I was saying that he didn't know anything, I guess. And that's not what I meant. I was just saying that you've seen my film. Because when he did his speech, it followed, pretty much, this film note for note. And he talked about the same stuff that was in this film. But his response was yeah, thanks for the film. One little line. I said OK, cool. But I sent it to Cornell West, I sent it to BET, I sent it to museums. And all of a sudden, I started seeing all this stuff pop up on the news. I said well no one was even thinking about this stuff before this came out. MJ: So the suspension and all of the legal stuff in its trail, that was all really recent. This was the early 2000s you're talking about? JL: Yeah. They, as a matter of fact, they got rid of him. He was the head of human resources. They ended up firing him. This is how I went after the union. They threatened me. When I first came here, they said that I -- I didn't even know, I thought it was automatically taken out of your union dues. So they threatened me: You have to be a part of the union to work here. So they weren't taking union dues, and all of a sudden, I get this letter saying, hey, we're going to fire you if you don't pay your union dues. So I immediately went down to payroll and they started taking out my union dues. I had problems and I went to the union for help. They said they couldn't win my case with ten lawyers. I've never had a day of law school my life. They tried, as a matter of fact, they tried to get my friend who works with me not to represent me. He was my union shop steward at the time. They wouldn't let him speak, but he went anyway. And he wrote down the information for me to display. And I beat them and they gave me my money back. And I started to say, well I can sue you. But I just want all my union dues back from the six years that I've been paying dues and you refuse to represent me, and I win myself. I said if you're not going to represent me and I represent myself and I win, what do I need you for? Why am I paying dues? I used a little intimidation, but I kind of scared them. MJ: What union was this? JL: This is, it's the Washington State union. MJ: Oh, so it's the government employees union. JL: Right, yeah. AFL-CIO or something to that effect. But all these days when I don't want to really be bothered, or I'm in kind of my mode, I have lynching shirts, and so I wore a lynching shirt to trial. And that's what they really focused on more. And I also made them watch the film to show them what the people were really upset about. And they got the point. MJ: So the film became an exhibit? JL: Yes. I put it on. And they didn't want to watch it. They didn't want to watch it. I said first of all, I put this on my list for an exhibit. You need to find a DVD player and you're going to watch it. But a lot of people want to deny this stuff. It's like-- I've seen old German soldiers deny that the Holocaust ever happened. You know, you see these people. And so that's another thing they talk about. The black soldiers and how they experienced racism from the Germans. And how the Germans were treated better than that. So I take all this stuff and I show it. But a lot of times people don't want to see this stuff. It's just, they're in denial about stuff that they know happened. So that's always been my passion. And it was my passion with trying to get some of the old cold cases opened. MJ: Can you talk more about your initial inspiration to do that kind of work? When was the moment when it occurred to that that's what you wanted to do? You wanted to deal with history in a certain way and maybe fuse it with music or other kinds of artistic work? Where does that come from? And who were your models for that? JL: I listened to a lot of Gil Scott-Heron, and I listened to The Last Poets. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. My being here -- I learned a lot. When I was a kid, I really didn't like blues. My guys were James Brown, the funk stuff. Because I always thought blues was a man always whining about whiskey or mojo or women. And I felt like the black man's problem is a lot bigger than whiskey or mojo. When he's getting lynched and his house is being burned and stuff like that, and he's singing about whisky and women. So why do I want to cry over women? And then I start listening to KPLU and hearing a lot of white people singing the blues, and not really knowing the true history of the blues. And they think well it's a one four five pattern, it's an pentatonic scale. But no, the blues is a lot more than that. It's just like the early hip hop when they had some sort of message. Like you had the Black Power movement with Public Enemy. KRS-One where they went from the gold chains to the African medalions. The cultural end of it. And so I looked at the blues and said why can't he sing about what his problem really was? And as a joke I said, well, I'll play some blues and I'll see -- And some of it also came from Living Color. Did you ever watch the old blues guy? He said I wrote a song about it. Y'all want to hear it? And he'll talk about, he'll say, I know a lot of you all think the old mayor here is a womanizer. But no, he's not a womanizer. He likes them little boys. I wrote a song about it. And he's kind of exposed -- that was my theme. To kind of expose or play with the stuff that people don't really want to talk about. The real issues. And so that's what I wrote "Red, White and Blues" about. I figured America has caused a lot of people the blues, so why not show how they caused the blues? And The Last Poets do poetry, but there was never actually a blues song. And then in the process of me thinking that way, I started learning about blues songs that were about that. And learning that they had to sing in code. So the person didn't know what they were talking about. And that's what I learned from the Martin Scorsese film. And after I had been talking all that noise, I had to turn around and add that to what I said I learned in the process of making the DVD. And also hearing Led Zeppelin. I grew up listening to Jimmy Page. "When the Levy Broke," the whole time I thought that was a Led Zeppelin song. And then I heard something from the '20s, an older blues acoustic version of "When the Levy Broke." And then Robert Johnson's line: "I'm going to squeeze the lemon ‘til the juice runs down my leg." That's in his lyric. And I had never heard Robert Johnson's lyrics. But I had heard it in Led Zeppelin. And then there's another tune that Led Zeppelin does that was a Muddy Waters tune. I said, wow! So and I said, well, I am going to go back and research this stuff. And so I just started buying as much blues music as I could. That's how I got that. And there was KPLU, which is 88.1. It's actually the only radio station I really listen to. It's a college station that's in Tacoma. Back when I was here before, they had a lady named Julia Sintrais. She was an excellent DJ. And when she would talk about the music, she would give you a little history behind it. And that's what encouraged me to research this stuff. So my newer thing is called Blues 101. And there's a George Carlin sample that I took when he's talking about the blues that I thought was funny. But a lot of people, when you start talking or joking this way, they get real tense about this stuff. It is for everybody. It is for everybody, but we have to be able to be real about it and talk about it. MJ: Do you find yourself-- I mean, I'm really struck by this story about the suspension here. Do you find yourself carrying a big burden for people of color at the university? Do you find yourself doing a lot of the work that more people ought to be doing? Or how do you understand your role in those terms at the college? JL: I do it because I think a lot of people are really afraid to do it. And when I first started doing it, I think they brought me into the classrooms to keep me from really showing so much to the public, probably. Because I used to it out in the -- when I first started doing it, I would do it -- even the president tried to send me some sort of little hidden message. And he started singing to me one day in his office. So they kind of think I'm a little half-crazy anyway around here. So he started singing to me in his office about send me somebody to love. And he happened to see my slide show out there. The first time I actually did it, there were four people and all were my friends. And outside in the lobby way where the library is, there used to be a stairwell. There used to be a staircase and it came down. And so at the bottom of the staircase, I had four people watching me. My piece, "Red, White and Blues" is like eight minutes long. And I'm sitting there with my eyes closed, and by the time I open my eyes, I've got 200 people watching me. And this really set the head of human resources off. He kind of got mad because he feels like that I'm showing something that shouldn't be shown. He was a little redneck guy. They ended up firing him. This is the head of human resources and he would stay stupid shit about Native Americans. That's what ended up getting him fired. He was just an asshole that was just out of touch. And in the human resources department. So he kind of sparked a lot of stuff. And one day he told me about this black guy that he had -- a roommate that didn't like him because he was white. He started telling me all these things. I said it's probably not because you're white, it's because you're an asshole. And he was an asshole. A lot of people want to know things, but they're afraid to -- They want to see things by themselves or they want to be in a comfortable environment where they're not thinking that, hey, they're going to judge me. Or this or that. And it was the same thing when I was a kid. But, back to my childhood. We had a friend-- the teacher would assign a student to show the new student around. And this guy's name was Kendall Kelley, and they started calling him a nigger lover. And after that he was afraid of what the other people thought, so he stopped talking to me. But that's how a lot of times people want to know things but are afraid. Or people want to learn things but they're afraid a lot of times, so they don't. Or they worry about what their friends say. And then this generation has gotten better with, I don't care if you don't like it. This is what I like, this is what I do. But in the past, the younger generation always worried about it. It's the same with new music. The way our music is accepted. Like how Jimi Hendrix had to go to England to be brought back here. And now we claim him. And it's just like how Muhammad Ali was such an asshole back then. But now he's our hero. Because I remember people didn't want to call him Muhammad Ali, they wanted to call him Cassius Clay. And he was a big mouthed trouble maker. But now all that's passed and he's a hero. MJ: Right. And what happened to all the people who hated Martin Luther King so much? Try to find them today. JL: Thank you. Thank you very much. That's what I think. Because I remember a kid calling him a communist and he hated him. Back to that, when he was murdered, there was a guy -- My mother came and got us all out of school. And we went down to the courthouse. I'm not sure exactly why we went down to the courthouse. But I remember truckloads of white people rolling around saying yeah, that nigger got what he deserved, da-da-da-da. See I knew it was going to happen, da-da-da-da. And so that's what I grew up with. And that's probably the big reason why I do a lot of this stuff. And then my father, what he went through, and what my grandfather went through. I was telling you my grandmother was afraid of white people. And I always wondered why she was afraid of them, until I started doing the research. And then I said well I understand. MJ: How did they communicate that to you? How conscious was it on their part that they wanted to give you an archive of really important stories to help you navigate this shit? JL: My grandmother was really afraid to talk about it. My mom would talk about it. And seeing history books with lynchings in it really kind of gave me a desire to learn more. And then later, I had a collection of lynching pictures. Every time I could find something in a different book, I'd either take it and have a slide made from it. And then all of a sudden there was a book called Without Sanctuary that somebody was talking about. And I ended up getting a copy of that book and taking more stuff out of it. And this guy, what he-- you know James, do you know about Without Sanctuary? MJ: Yeah. JL: OK, well this guy, how we started was he was collecting antique furniture and he would find all these old post cards. MJ: Oh, the postcards, yeah. JL: Right. So I said well if this guy has made a book, I can take some more of this stuff. And I have constantly seen newer stuff that I want to add to it, but I haven't yet. MJ: Can we talk a little bit about -- I'm jumping forward again in time -- just about your sense of the first year and few months of the Obama administration? Both what he's done as President. Just your general sense of how it's gone. And including the opposition that's come out of the woodwork over this stuff. JL: I've always thought it'd be good to have a health care plan. I always thought it would be good for anybody that needed to go to the doctor to be able to go to the doctor. Especially as rich as this country is. When I was in Iceland, they had a health care system. And it seemed like it worked pretty good for them. And it's sad that if you don't have money you can't live. And it shouldn't be that way. He's the President of all people. But I think he needs really to invest more in the black community. Do some investment in the black community. More investment in the black community. I think he needs to really speak out on racial issues. I know he was forced to. But he shouldn't have to be forced to. He's a black man. He's experienced. Just because you're a politician doesn't mean you stop being a black person. You can speak as a black person and speak as a President too. Like I said, I'm really proud to say it. I think a lot of black people in the beginning were a little hesitant about him becoming the President. They were a little scared and saying all the stuff that they said. I don't know if you watch the State of the Black Union with Dick Gregory. Did you happen to see that? MJ: Yeah, yeah. JL: OK, well I thought that was really enlightening for him, Dick Gregory, to say. Especially when they were saying Obama isn't as black as Bill Clinton. What kind of shit is that? And don't get me wrong, I've said that about black people, too. But he's married to a black woman, and that was one of the big things that black women liked. It's normally said when a brother gets a position, he marries a white woman and forgets who he is. And he automatically will say that they want more to claim the white side of his culture. And he's calling himself a black man. That's a plus by itself. And from being here, you see that with a lot of biracial people. And that's another thing that's really changing. The world is a lot more mixed than it was before. You have more categories of people. And I really think it's cool that that end of it has changed. And I think that does, that scares a lot of people. You see even on the programming. Like if you watch the History Channel. The History Channel has been hyping a lot of racist groups. They had the Hammerskins, they had W.A.R., White Aryan Resistance. And they had another skinhead group that they've been showing. And so they're hyping all that stuff. And they're giving voice to these skinheads. And they're saying, well, that's what's happening now. The ZOG, and they think all this stuff. Obama's going to do this. And he's going to take away their guns. So you hear that type of environment. And you see even TV ramping this stuff up. Like the end of the world. So you've got all these nuts that are hearing this stuff. And eventually they're going to act on it. They're tired of shooting at-- this is just my opinion-- but they're tired of shooting at trees out in the woods. They want to shoot people. And eventually it's going to come to that. That's my opinion. So I think they need to really kind of ramp up. I mea,n we're looking for Al Qaeda and all these guys. But I think we need to look for Uncle Sam around here too. MJ: I'm thinking of that Chris Rock routine. I'm not afraid of Al Qaeda, I'm afraid of "Al Cracker." [Laughter] JL: But yeah, just that. And you see it. And you see it on TV. And it scares people, you know? People don't really want to change that fast. And I just remember seeing it in the South, how people really hated black people. But they like the culture, and they like the food, and they like the service. But the people, they don't really like them. Now that's changed. It's like the Mexican has become the bad person to them. And the Mexicans and blacks -- they should be, to me, best friends. Just like Native Americans. But they're bumping heads. It's like they're using them to go against each other. Just like in the South, a lot of black people are robbing Mexicans because they know that they have money. That's been going on. And in the West, the gang bangers are shooting blacks. They're calling it ethnic cleansing. Neighborhoods that were predominantly black now have become largely Hispanic. So you've got the gangs going at each other. And that's been going on for God knows. My kids are down in California. Like I said, I lived in California and that's how I know all that. The world has changed but it's a lot the same. MJ: Yeah. Well, is there anything that we haven't talked about that you feel like we should have? Or anything you wish that you had said that you haven't? JL: I can't really think of anything...

Seitu Jones Interview Transcript

ATT JACOBSON: While I set the levels, if you would say and spell your name. SEITU JONES: OK. My name is Seitu Jones. That's S-E-I-T-U J-O-N-E-S. How's that? MJ: That's good. Great. So, to get us started, if you don't mind, just give me a brief autobiographical sketch. Just a thumbnail sketch of kind of where you grew up, where you're from, the trajectory that you've taken, what you're doing now. SJ: In how many minutes? MJ: It's up to you. [SJ Laughs.] SJ: You know I feel kind of like Bill Cosby. I remember he was asked that years ago, and he said, I began as a child. But I guess to even begin, I should really, to even set a context for who I am, I am a fourth-generation Minnesotan, and with the birth of my kids, my family and my grandkids now, my family's been here for six generations. My great grandfather was a slave, escaped slave, fought in the Civil War, and then migrated to Minnesota up the Mississippi, we're assuming, and landed in Red Wing, a small town right on the river, one of these river towns and worked in a hotel, as a porter, that's still standing, in the early 1880's, and then farmed around Rochester, where my grandmother was born. My father was born in Saint Paul just a few miles away from where we are now. And I was born in Minneapolis. I was born in North Minneapolis. My earliest memories are from the Quonset huts that were old Army barracks that were placed throughout urban areas to house all these returning World War II veterans. And whether it was by law or not, many of these returning World War veterans, who were black, were all living in the same areas. So my earliest memories are of my father and his old buddies and friends, and we moved up and out of the Quonset huts and into the projects, the federally funded housing projects. And at an early age, you know, I was really interested in art. And I can even remember drawing. My father was an artist. And I can remember watching him draw, playing with his tools and materials and brushes when he was gone away. And even though he'd catch me, he still never really discouraged me from experimenting. And he was my biggest supporter throughout that time. MJ: He was an artistic person or he was a working artist? SJ: He was an artistic person, trained as an artist, went to the University of Minnesota, didn't graduate, but many of his contemporaries felt that he was a really strong artist. And I say many of his white contemporaries, really I should be more specific, that he went to school with at the university. And Dad never got the jobs that they got, that had kind of the same background, and Dad finally gave up looking for work as an artist when somebody told him, you know, that we don't hire colored folks. And that was-- I mean, he had always been working for the government, and retired from the post office as a letter carrier and as a business person. He owned a little liquor store in South Minneapolis, always active. But because of his experience, he was sometimes reticent about me following that path, not wanting me to experience the same frustrations, but ended up becoming my biggest supporter and promoter. Dad died, now, about 22 years ago, but I still think of him almost every day. I mean, it's really as a result of him and this big supportive family that I grew up in. I had aunts and uncles that encouraged me, that told me over and over how smart I was to the point where me and all my cousins actually started to believe that. And that was enough to help us when we encountered many of the obstacles in this racist society. But I went away to school, went to Morehouse College, got frustrated there because there was no art department. And initially, though, I stepped away from art. I wanted to be a historian, of all things and still use history as one of the themes that guides my work, but went away to school, came back here, finished up at the University of Minnesota, got married, had two kids. You know, all along the way over this last, 40 years it's been since I graduated from high school, I've been fortunate and blessed and persistent enough to have jobs that have been related to art or to working with my hands in some way. Sometimes, it was a real drudgery, sometimes it was horrible work, but it was still work that was related to art in some way or another. And also, getting caught up in the mix of the politics of the times. You know, my work and politics were influenced by cultural nationalism, by the Black Panther Party, by the kind of Marxism of the time, actually almost the kind of Groucho Marxism of the time [SJ and MJ laugh], but this real mix. You know, one day we were listening to The Last Poets, the next day we were listening to Hendrix or The Beatles. I mean, all of that was a part of this rich mix of stuff that really cemented these tenets that I still follow to this day. And you know, one of the things that came out of cultural nationalism-- actually, and this is even part is like the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles. And one of them just froze in my mind, and that was to make your communities more beautiful than you found them. I got caught up in the early mural movement, really being influenced and impacted by the Wall of Respect in Chicago. I used to get shipped to Chicago, because that's where my mother is from, from the time I was like about four or five in the summers. That's where we spent-- so I was growing up with all these white kids that would end up going to their grandparents' farms, while I ended up on the south side of Chicago and spent my whole summers down there. And in '67, I think it was, my grandfather took me by the Wall of Respect, which was in his old neighborhood in Chicago. And it just kind of blew my mind that here was this art work that was present for folks, that was accessible to folks, was not in a museum, was not in a gallery, but this was a way of informing and influencing folks. And it was beautiful. And it was multimedia. It was photography, it was painting, it was all these different styles. I mean, in the scheme of things, it was on a building about as big as mine right now, but it was enormous to me at that time. And since that time, I've chosen to do work in the public realm, work that also informs and inspires, work that is large scale, mixed media, all picking up from all these folks at the time. In reflection, I can see that. At the time, I was just caught up in the rich mix of stuff that was happening. But I'm sitting here blabbering on here. MJ: No, not at all. SJ: You just asked me one question, and I'm just going on. MJ: Well, I'm curious, if you could say a little bit more about your kind of political coming to consciousness. When that was and-- SJ: Yeah-- MJ: --what were the moments that, in retrospect, are most vivid to you, where you were thinking, oh, this is kind of a light bulb goes on. This is something I believe in or can articulate in a new way and that my own artistic work maybe is going to be an expression of? SJ: Well, you know, it's hard to put a finger on just one point. It's like all the historians that debate on the fall of the Roman Empire. When did it exactly happen? MJ: [Laughing] Right. SJ: And I think we're experiencing that right now. [SJ laughs.] MJ: We'll get to that. SJ: Yeah, that's a little bit later. But for me, I can kind of remember my political wake up was Emmett Till. I can still-- MJ: How old were you? SJ: It seems like I was around six or seven. It seems like it. But when that happened, I was about four. And that's only now in retrospect I look back at that. And I remember seeing the pictures in Jet magazine when I went over to my grandmother's house and looking at it there. And, you know, Emmett Till's momma, that said she wanted everybody to see what they did to her son, there's so many folks who are my age, in their late 50s, so many black folks that remember that and remember it from Jet magazine, even. Folks who did not see the body, who were not there. But we all had this kind of shared and common experience. MJ: Right. SJ: I mean, it's not like 9/11, or it's not like when Kennedy or King was assassinated, where you remember where you were, and were all kind of in the same place at the same time. This happened-- I can remember when I saw that, and I can remember even the room I was in where I saw it with the pile and the stack and saw it. MJ: So, I'm curious about this. Were you encouraged to look at it? SJ: No, uh-uh. MJ: Or you were kind of protected from it, but it happened to see it? SJ: No. They didn't even protect me from it. I picked it up. And I saw it. I read it. Well, I didn't read it, but I remember the pictures. I remember that. And that had such power. I can't remember or recall any adults being around, if they condoned it, if they condemned it. Nobody snatched it out of my hand. But I just remember seeing that and how that seared in my mind. And the thing that got me and that I related to, and I must have known something about, is that I knew that white people had done that, and I knew that this was a kid like me. And that was my kind of early coming of age. I mean, there are all these other little things that happen. I mean, people call you nigger and little acts of discrimination. But in terms of something that-- this light bulb going off in my head, where I could really point to it, it was looking at that magazine. MJ: That was that. So where do you go with that as a four-year-old kid? I mean it's hard to even-- SJ: Yeah, well, you know, I don't know. I don't know what happened after that. And when I really started becoming I guess more politically savvy and sophisticated was while I was in high school. And that was all coupled with this activism, knowing what was happening down South. I mean, coming up seeing all of that happening and seeing all that stuff happening and getting caught up in that rich mix of politics, of activism. I can remember working in high school. We had a small black student organization and also getting tied in with-- you know, here's another thing that happened to me. And this is like this line to Peter again and the history department at Macalester. [Peter Rachleff, Professor of History at Macalester, had arranged the interview between SJ and MJ.]  I don't know if you've ran into-- I can't remember Mahmoud El-Kati being on that list. Mahmoud taught at Macalester for years and years. But before that, he was teaching history in a wide range of contexts, and he taught a class in African American history in 1968-- 1967, for this thing called the Twin Cities Institute for Talented Youth. And a man that knew my mother encouraged me to apply. And I applied, because they all had a wide range of courses, but I remember this one on African American history. And I took that class. I was in high school, and Mahmoud opened up this whole world to me. And it was a small class of like ten people, all black students, and there were a handful of us that ended up being active in all these different areas. And some of them even became like at the pinnacle of their kind of professional trajectories. One guy now is the head of medicine at a hospital in Detroit. One woman just stepped down as a judge in Minneapolis. I mean, but all of us were students of Mahmoud at this time. And that's where all this stuff kind of came together, my family and my experiences, my neighborhood. I mean, all of that stuff kind of came together there. Mahmoud opened up this whole world of black accomplishment and achievement, but had the ability to kind of place us in context and challenge us to do something about it as well, too, and we all ended up doing it. And it's funny, because we all get together. You've got to ask Peter about Mahmoud, as well, too. But after that, Mahmoud taught almost two generations of students at Macalester. And Peter and Mahmoud overlapped during that time. Peter came to Macalester, Mahmoud was there. But anyway, saying all that to say that that was kind of the crucible that helped shape me. I mean, but there are all these other things that happened. But in terms of being awakened, it was there. MJ: Right. And kind of assembling a vocabulary in a way. SJ: Exactly, exactly. MJ: So can you talk a little bit about how from that point, how you kind of carried that kind of newly emergent way of looking and questioning into your artistic work and what's been your trajectory since those years? SJ: Well you know, initially, some of the tenets of the Black Panther Party and even cultural nationalism-- MJ: I'm sorry to interrupt, but I was wondering how much of the kind of periodic time that you spent in Chicago. Was that about an important part of your political education? SJ: Oh, yeah, yeah. MJ: Being in that setting? SJ: Very much so. Very much so. I mean, I'm so glad that I was able to do that as well, too. I mean, in retrospect, I hated getting bundled up. Once I got older in high school, or closer to high school, maybe junior high age, you know, like that 13, 14, I wanted to be here. I didn't want to go down to Chicago anymore and hang out with my grandparents, and do any of that stuff. But I was so glad, now in retrospect, that Mom and Dad did that, and I would always tease them. I still tease my mother about it. I mean, they would drive us down to Chicago and almost burn rubber, you know? [SJ laughs.] We would see them going off in the distance, standing on a curb, you know, my sister and I. But all of that helped shape us. My world was like Minneapolis and the south side of Chicago, sometimes Saint Louis, but we didn't go anywhere else. I mean, that was it. And also, each one of these black communities. They were starting to deteriorate, but there were all these institutions that still existed there in these black communities. They were still relatively strong. I mean, the south side of Chicago, you know, Chicago itself is a city of superlatives: largest Mexican population, largest Polish population outside of Warsaw, largest black community outside of Lagos, I mean, all that kind of stuff. And you could see that. You could travel for miles on the south side of Chicago, and it was a completely black world, man. And I hope you get down to Chicago and talk to folks at some point, too. MJ: Oh yeah, I will. SJ: But I mean here, for me, coming from a small town to big city, and I had to learn quickly on my feet [SJ laughs], you know, getting plucked from there and dropped in it. I mean, I guess, you know, one of the most frightening times was being in Chicago after Martin Luther King died. We were on our way to Chicago, and this was when I was in high school. And when Martin Luther King died, and I remember-- this is another time where you remember exactly where you were. And when the announcement came on, my dad and I were running around trying to get ready to go, because we were going to be driving all night long. And the announcement came on, and my dad and I just froze in front of the TV, watching it in silence and unbelief. And I remember Dad saying, oh, man, they're going to tear up Chicago tonight. And that didn't sink in, initially. But on the way there, we kept hearing these reports about gunfire, about the National Guard, and it was amazing being there at that time and seeing Chicago literally under martial law in the days of Daley. You know, with seeing these police cars going up and down the street with shotguns sticking outside of like three of the windows and seeing the National Guard troops there, the smoke and the haze. I mean, it was frightening. It was frightening, and also, it was also this rich learning experience, seeing America at this point and still being shocked by this assassination, this being the second of those like three different things. But getting back to my work and being politicized, you know, the tenets of the Black Panther Party and cultural nationalists, many folks felt that art should advance these political concerns. So I was doing pamphlets, brochures, illustrations for posters, and that's how I saw my work. I saw my work being a part of this movement. Not thinking at the time that it was really this movement that folks would afterward call the Black Arts Movement. But that was the cultural component of all that we were doing. And it was only later that I began to question even that kind of ethic. MJ: Question it how? SJ: Well, questioning it that art had all these other roles. There were artists that were also doing work that was abstract, but that work was questioned by a lot of folks. A lot of folks would ask, is that even black? You know, and what is black art? And is there a black aesthetic? And all of those arguments and questions. And it made me start to think about that in different ways as my work became more abstracted, more conceptual. And I was taking my cue at that time from black musicians, you know, from folks as varied as Coltrane to Pharaoh Sanders, even to Miles Davis. I mean, all those folks were doing work that was at that time really abstract, and it was justified. I mean, it was still work that was part of this tradition. And so I began to move away from just this one idea of what art was, that it always had to be overtly political. MJ: Right, and narrative in some way. SJ: Exactly. All very literal or realistic and pretty much two dimensional. You know? So as I moved further away from that, my work became more sculptural, became larger, became much more conceptual, but still holding on to those tenets. I still want my work to inform and inspire, and I still draw from the politics of the times we're living in. My work really reflects the physical, the social, the cultural characteristics of a particular site. I mean, I draw from all those things when I create this work. MJ: So maybe if you can kind of speak through the prism of your own work in recent years, could you talk a little bit about-- let's jump ahead in time a little bit and talk about the last decade or so, which has been a troubling and maybe truly desperate time in certain ways. SJ: Yeah. MJ: It's also been a hopeful time more recently. SJ: Yeah, really. MJ: And more recently still, a kind of disappointing time. SJ: Exactly. MJ: You talked about the fall of the Roman Empire. SJ: Yeah, right. MJ: Can you talk about the work that you've done, but also how that expresses your own sense of the storm we've been riding through since about 2000? SJ: Yeah, you know, I always have to also start out by saying how fortunate and how blessed I am. I've been very persistent. But I've also been very lucky that I have had this opportunity to have this perspective, to have time for reflection. Because there's so many folks who I know, who are friends, who are family, who don't have that time, because of the desperate situations that we're in right now. You know, in looking back at this last decade, it has been kind of up and down. And actually, what I've been saying by fortunate, you know, I've been able to earn a living from my work for a long time. And in these times even, I have been able to still live and live a relatively comfortable lifestyle based on my work, and that is a true blessing right now here in America, in the last days of America. And I don't know where it's going to be. And there were times in my early career when I could only see a few days ahead. And then over time, with persistence, I could see a month ahead, three months ahead, six months. Now I can see further ahead. But I don't know what's at the end here yet for this thing. But man, yeah, this has been a ride watching this stuff play out. I'll even go back a little bit further. Soyini and I. Soyini's my wife. We were laughing about this. We had a friend from Ghana who was staying with us during the first Clinton election, and leading up to that time. And he was just enthralled with this stuff, because at the very same time, Ghana was electing its first democratically elected president. And since that time, that was in 1993, or '92. And since that time, you know, Ghana has been on the same election cycle. So every time there's a president elected in Ghana, there's one elected here. So we've halfway kind of followed that, too. But I mean since that time. But Kwaiku was just, like, blown away that there were lines, first of all. Now in Africa, in a lot of countries in Africa where people do vote, you know, there are lines that are much longer than the lines that he saw at the polls during the time he was here. But at that time, he was just blown away by that. And then afterward, he was blown away that nobody was mad, and nobody threatened to take power, control, and people weren't skittish, that that was not going to happen. In Ghana, people would always be concerned, and they were initially. They had that anxiety-- MJ: About the transfer of, yeah. SJ: Yeah, that first election. You know, well, we're not through it yet. And the further and further away from it that they've gotten, now it's this kind of free-wheeling democracy like we have, for good or for bad. The kind of big D, not the little d in democracy. And it's kind of be careful what you ask for sometimes. But going back at that time and the excitement that a lot of folks-- and hope that people had during the Clinton years, even. And then with the disappointments. Not in his indiscretions, but like with Rwanda, like with Eastern Europe. I mean, I'm talking about foreign policy. MJ: Right, Kosovo, and-- SJ: Exactly. And then with his retreat from-- I mean, this whole move to what's folks were calling the center. The failure of Hillary at that time in being able to push through any kind of solution to health care. All of those were like real experiences, I mean real, to me, setbacks. And then for that to usher in those Bush years. Man, that was truly frightening. I mean, we were, I feel, as close to the precipice as many folks felt in the late '60s. In the late '60s, early '70s, man, I thought that the revolution was going to happen, you know, next month, next year. We were that close to America falling apart to me and that was mirrored during that whole time period during the Bush years. And stuff that we knew that was happening that is coming to light now in regards to the way that we were all spied upon, the secrets that happened, and the fact that he was just dumb. We had a really dumb president [SJ and MJ laugh]. I'll go on record as saying that. I mean, even now, it's like Obama has trotted he and Bill Clinton out to build support for Haiti. I mean, he still sounds dumb. But anyway, to come up to this time here and all of the hope that we all had, and knowing that Obama could change things incrementally, in knowing that there wouldn't be a real big fundamental change, hoping that there would be, but now we're back to this kind of grim reality. I mean, living in this time, man, and this gets now back to the fall of the Roman Empire and how people couldn't pinpoint when it happened. You know, was it here? Or was it here? MJ: But that's not just a metaphor for you? SJ: Exactly. That's the reality that we're living in right now. I mean, we're seeing the decline of the American empire, and we have all benefitted from it. Everyone who lives here has benefitted from it in some way, and now it is collapsing. It's collapsing ecologically. It's collapsing economically, our physical infrastructure. You've driven, now around the streets here and seen these potholes. I've never seen potholes as bad as they are now here in Minnesota. I mean, you get the freeze-thaw, you've got these deep, deep ruts. And so take your guide from the car in front you as it swerves out of the way. You don't know what they're swerving out of the way from, but you know that's there's a big pothole up there. The collapse of the 35W--. MJ: The bridge, yeah. SJ: --bridge.  You know, it's like on and on and on and on here. And this is like this little-- here in the Twin Cities, and you multiply that throughout urban areas around the country. And knowing that we'll never be able to catch up to it. Obama and his administration, talk about the 10,000 or even 100,000 jobs that were added recently. But knowing that we've lost like about 8 million jobs that are gone right now. I can see it here in my neighborhood as well, too. I was in Haiti right before the earthquake, and I was telling my wife that there were-- I'd run into these men who were a lot like the men I see here on this block. Black men who are my age who have had run-ins with the law, and so, as result of a felony, even though they've changed their lives, that still tracks them. And so they have not-- there's a guy here, a couple doors down, who has never really been a part of the economy as we know it. Even though he hasn't done anything illegal, he's been living this whole, a part of this underground economy, where he does odd jobs for folks, takes kind of whatever comes, doesn't go into any day labor stuff at all, but is always out hustling. And I was telling Soyini-- his name is Ron. I was telling Soyini, I came back from there and I said there's a whole country full of folks like Ron. You know, these men who are strong, able, and willing to work, but for a wide range of reasons, they haven't been able to. And if you multiply Ron by this kind of exponential factor, that there are all these folks here, throughout the world, who haven't been able to benefit from this society the way I have, the way a whole bunch of other folks have. And so, I wonder if they'll ever be able to fully participate. If the economy changed tomorrow, Ron still wouldn't be able to fully participate because of the way that many states regard folks with felonies. And that's just one example of that. I mean, it's been frustrating to watch and to see this decline. You know, the other thing that we're seeing here in Frogtown-- when we first moved here to Frogtown-- and that's what this little neighborhood is called: Frogtown. When we first moved here to Frogtown, I remember somebody telling me that Frogtown had the most black businesses, had more black businesses than any other neighborhood. He says the only problem is that they're all crack houses. And the neighborhood really worked to eliminate all of those crack houses. We moved here kind of at the tail end of the crack epidemic, and so we saw that big change. There's still a lot of absentee landlords, and landlords who don't care, And so there were still some problem houses here in Frogtown. Noisy houses, and we'd end up calling the cops a lot of times. People would demonstrate in front of some of these houses. People would call. My wife was always-- she'd get the number of the landlords and call the landlords, and say, listen to this, and put the phone up to the window. Or in front of the house. Say, this is a party going on at the house that you own right now. I mean, all these little things here. But with the housing crisis, a lot of those folks that bought those houses on speculation have lost them. They were the first to lose them. Now we're seeing families lose them. And the thing that we're seeing now is this neighborhood being depopulated. And so now on some of those same summer nights when it would be loud and noisy, it is quiet. So we enjoy the peace, but are concerned about next steps. What's going to happen now? As light rail comes through here just a few blocks from here and the stop is going to be on Dale Street, that's going to bring development and new development. And will we see this cycle all over again, where people, once the housing market begins to turn around again, where people buy these houses on speculation, or can we help folks stay in their homes who are here? Can we direct folks that would want to work towards the benefit of the neighborhood here? Can we work on ways to get them to own their own houses? I mean, it has tremendous potential now. In a way, it's like the slate has been wiped clean. Not in the same way like Port-au-Prince has been, but we have the same kind of political uncertainty that a lot of folks in Port-au-Prince are facing, because we've got, there, an ineffective government. Here we've got a government that is collapsing, that can't do everything. What's going to happen? One of the things that we have actually begun to do is I've been working with a group of black environmentalists as well as my wife and a couple here in the neighborhood on issues around food security. And we have been working to try and start an urban farm. I mean, we grow food ourselves, and encourage our neighbors, and actually we're part of a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture]. Actually, a CSA that came out of this association of these African American environmentalists. And my wife and I and this other couple have been working to preserve about 13 acres of open land that was on the market after a foundation that had been there at that site for almost 100 years moved away. The Wilder Foundation moved about a half a mile away, University Avenue, and left this land there. They were initially going to sell it to whoever could come up with the money. And we wanted to make sure that that land-- a big part of this land has always been open space. It's the only sliding [sledding] hill in Frogtown, highest point in Frogtown, big grove of oak trees on one side, and so it's been our informal park in a neighborhood that has the least amount of land dedicated to passive green space in Saint Paul. No other neighborhood in Saint Paul has as little kind of green space as we do. And so we've been actively working on that and actually now moving in a position where we want to embarrass Wilder Foundation if they try to sell it to a developer that'll put up condos, and been working with the county, the city, with Trust for Public Land to acquire that piece of property. So anyway, we're taking this proactive stance right now. And there's an area where the buildings for the Wilder Foundation used to exist that's on top of the hill, this kind of plateau on top of the hill. We want to actually transform it into an urban farm. My wife and this woman and the other couple are master gardeners and have gone through the master gardener program and are both master gardeners. And I ended up going back to school and ended up with a graduate degree in environmental history. And so that's another thing that I have been pulling into my work. My work now also encompasses and blends nature in many ways. And I've also done a little bit of work with Will Allen [CEO of Growing Power] in Milwaukee. I don't know, are you making it to Milwaukee at all? MJ: Not on this trip. SJ: OK. Yeah. MJ: But later, I hope. SJ: Yeah, but he's one of the persons that you should talk to in Milwaukee. Will Allen, who is like the urban garden group guru. I was teasing him because a couple of weeks ago he was with Michelle Obama when Michelle declared war on obesity. Now he was one of the speakers there at this event. She asked him to come because of what he's been doing in urban farming. Anyway, I'm saying all this to say is like this one little thing, while we're concerned about housing and work toward having folks in safe, secure, affordable and quality housing here in Frogtown, the thing that we have been concentrating most of our effort on is greening Frogtown. So last year we also launched an initiative to bring 1,000 trees to Frogtown, planted one small orchard and we're planting another one this spring of seven trees, but planting them throughout Frogtown on vacant lots, working toward food security right here in Frogtown. And this year, it's been focusing on what we're calling Frogtown Farm, this small, 4 acre site out of a big 13 acre site that we hope to transform into a farm. So anyway, that's kind of what we're working on. MJ: It's interesting. We need to wrap up, but going back to the very first thing you said. You started your story with the ancestor who escaped to Red Wing. SJ: Yeah, exactly. Oh yeah, yeah, right. MJ: And it seems to me that running through the entire hour that we've been talking, there are two themes that are kind of inter-threaded in an interesting way. One is a story of kind of regeneration. And the other is the story of fugitivity. SJ: Yeah. [SJ and MJ laugh.] SJ: It is, right. Still running. MJ: And those two things-- Well, in a certain way, right. Different kinds of running and different occasions for it. But I guess I just wanted to kind of put that out there and see if that's a paradigm that makes sense for thinking about the kind of work that you've done. The kind of political work. SJ: It does. One thing I didn't mention is I never thought-- I have pictures of myself in my grandmother's garden, and I'm sitting here talking to you about art, but I'm also mad passionate about plants. I have a degree in art, but I also have a degree now in landscape design, and another one, like I said, in environmental history. So I'm combining all this stuff up together. I've been mad passionate about plants. We planted fruit trees out here, and one of my biggest accomplishments-- and I've gotten awards and recognitions from a lot of folks, and I've been fortunate and blessed to have been awarded fellowships to do this and do that and travel. But every year, I look forward to entering my plums at the State Fair. And I've won three blue ribbons. I've won now four red ribbons for my plums. I have the best plums in the state of Minnesota, Mount Royal plums. And that's what I've been focusing on now. I mean, you need to come back here in the summertime and see. Actually, it's kind of funny. Last spring I was over at Peter's house, because he called me because he had extra hostas. And so I went over there digging hostas out of Beth and Peter's garden. And I was telling him that I have got to get him back in the spring, so he can look at these hostas and see how they're doing. And so that's this other conversation that folks have and that people have been having, as we have been trying to raise the importance of greening. But kind of going back to what you were saying, too, I have pictures of myself in my grandmother's garden. My grandmother was the daughter of a farmer, and I never thought that I would come back to this. My wife, she has a whole other story. Now she grew up in South Dakota, a big farm family, and she has retained all of those canning skills. And so, every fall, we're putting away all those things that come out of our garden. And so there's this thread that runs through my life. I had an aunt that used to tease me and call me little George Washington Carver [African American scientist and botanist, 1864-1943]. And I only found out as an adult, several years ago now, that George Washington Carver was also an artist. He was a painter. And so to blend this art and this nature in some kind of way is something that kind of runs through. But you're also right about this thing with fugitivity, as you described it. I mean, I am always running as well and to different neighborhoods, different parts of the world. I have this restless curiosity, too, just to see and talk to folks and to learn as well. I mean, just like you're doing, too. One of the things that I've done, I've gotten a couple of research fellowships to do different things. And wherever I've gone, I've always ended up hanging out with folks on water. I mean, I haven't even talked to you about this. We don't have time at all for this, but throughout the African diaspora, I've always kind of gravitated toward the shore, whether it's along the river or on water. My father, my uncles, my grandfather used to drag me out in the boat. We always were fishing. Fishing to supplement our diets, but also the sport and the passion was also part of it. And I didn't realize that this was part of this maritime tradition that folks have had that they all tapped into. And it was in their minds as well, too. So wherever I've gone, for other reasons, I have ended up hanging out with boat builders. And right now on my computer. I'm preparing a slide thing that I'm going to be doing. I've also made boats and used boat building techniques in sculpture as well, too. Steam bending, forming wood around a particular form. But saying all that to say, it's like I have this restless curiosity, going to all these places and talking to folks, and trying to use that in some way to inform my work, and I still do that. I still am passionate about that. Now I should probably let you go, man. What time do you have to be downtown? Now? MJ: Well, I'm late, but it's OK. Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. SJ: Well, yeah, this is going to be some rich document that you'll have here.

Shepard and Jean Geller Interview Transcript

MATT JACOBSON: OK. So first as a start, would you just tell me your name. SHEPARD GELLER: My name is Shepard Geller. MJ: And your name? JEAN GELLER: And I am Jean Geller. MJ: OK. Before we really dive into the meat of this, do you mind just giving me a thumbnail sketch of where you came from, how you arrived inGainsville, what you do here, how long you've been here, just to kind of set the scene a little bit? SG: Well I was born in March of 1938, the same year and month that Superman were created in the Action Comics. I was born in Manhattan, but grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Went to local public schools, went to a high school in Manhattan, Stuyvesant. From there I went to college at Michigan State, and ended up in law school back in Manhattan at New York University. Travelled around the country, including two years in Korea while I was in service. Came back, ended up with a PhD at Princeton, and then spent 28 years working in Washington D.C. where we lived in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Been married for 42 years, happily I think. And I'm in good health, and I really enjoy living in Gainesville, Florida, although I dislike the Gators. MJ: OK. Well you're in good company then [laughter]. So let me just track on this a little bit. You did your legal training in the late '40s? SG: No, legal training was 1958 to 1961. MJ: Oh, so it was after the army? SG: After the army. MJ: Got it. And then you're -- SG: No, no, no, before the army. I went in the army in '63. MJ: Oh I see. SG: I had been deferred while I was in law school. And the after graduating, I eventually lost my deferment and had to apply for a direct commission. MJ: And then you were in the army and then you did your PhD work? SG: Right. MJ: And so then you've been a practicing attorney for how long? SG: Well, since I started at the Justice Department in '75. MJ: OK. And you've been in Gainesville for six years? SG: Six years, since 2003. MJ: Great, OK. Now one of the things -- I've been talking to all different kinds of people, in all walks of life. And one of the things that I'm eager to talk about is just what I'm calling, our current moment in America, which I think is an extraordinary moment. And most people think so in one way or another, although there's no agreement about whether it's good or it's bad or what's extraordinary about it. So let's just start in a general way, if you could -- when I say the phrase, our current moment, what does that mean to you? What seems to be the most important thing about 2009 in America? SG: Well the economic situation is probably the most important. It's not important to me, because I have a well secured pension that is independent of the stock market. And I'm working full-time, even though I'm 71, and have no plans to retire. But I think, for most of the people who are I think, the majority of the people that are now probably over 50, the disaster in the stock market and their reduced pension income, is the number one concern on their minds. MJ: Can you say a little bit about the changes that you see in Gainesville? It's not exactly long term, but the longer term changes since you first arrived here. And then what you've seen over the last year. SG: There's no changes in Gainesville. The only thing that changes is the price of gas. MJ: Really? SG: That I see. I go to my work every day. I have very little interaction with the private community. But [Jean's] experience is very different. She has a unique job...   Jean has a unique job, and she can speak to that. JG: But it's not in my job where I see it. In the course of networking with a lot of people and in an effort to make friends -- we only moved down here six years ago -- I needed to find friends, more so than a job. And some of the women who have dropped out of these networking groups, when I see them or I get in touch with them, they say to me, I can't afford the luncheons anymore. And we're talking about an $18.00 luncheon, or $20.00 if you're not a member. And I hear about husbands who have lost their jobs. There's one case where a husband, hospital administrator, is now working in Atlanta, Georgia, and he manages to come home for the weekends. So family life has been disrupted, and there is a sense of cut back and pull back and deprivation among well educated families who were not expecting this. MJ: We'll come back to Gainesville in just a second. First though, would you mind giving us a thumbnail sketch of your life, the same way that Shep did? JG: All right. Well I was born in 1943. I was a Bronx girl. Sometime around when I was five years old we took a step up and moved to Flushing, Queens. I too, went to public schools and Queens College, NYU for a Masters Degree in English Literature. Part of my early career was spent as a technical writer for a pharmaceutical company. When we moved down the East Coast to Washington D.C., I was a full-time mom, but then when the boys were back in school I went into publishing. So I spent 15, 16 years running the publishing division of an education association in the D.C. area. MJ: Which years were these? JG: Went back to work in '87 and we moved down here in 2003. During that time I did a lot of volunteer work. That was really my second career. And when we came down here I decided that I did not want to chase commas and brackets for the rest of my life, or crunch numbers for budgeting of a publishing line. And so I just used my transferable skills to hang out a shingle to be a professional organizer, which involved considerable self-education about ADD and it's concomitant conditions, because most of my clients who need help with life skills, coping, organizing, time management, are dealing with ADHD. And so that's kind of the niche that I have found. MJ: And what age group are most of your clients? JG: They're mostly adults, but they're all over that adult span. MJ: OK. So let's go back to what you're saying about Gainesville and just some of what you see in a kind of daily way about the way that the economic crisis has hit this community. JG: Well for me it's very casual. Among my clients, I see people who are really cutting certain things that they would buy without hesitation in better times. I see people who are buying store brands rather than the popular brands. But it's mostly the stories of people who have dropped out of certain activities because they can no longer afford them. Oh, I'm not going to meetings anymore because I can't afford the dues, and that sort of thing. I'm not up close and personal with the household agony of this in most cases. MJ: One of the things I've heard about again and again as a I've been travelling all over Gainesville over the last couple of days, is the recent spike in the crime rate. In your line of work do you see that, or is there any other way, just in your kind of -- by virtue of being here, that that's something that you're aware of in a personal way? SG: No, I think one of the interesting things about Gainesville, is that it has two main pillars for cultural and economic activity. One, is the medical community. There are 4 or 5 major hospital facilities, teaching hospitals, part of the University of Florida. And the other main pillar is the university itself where you've got 45,000 students and 10,000 faculty. So because of that, the community is pretty liberal from a political and social standpoint. So that there are no racial issues in the city. And there's a great deal of economic stability. I remember reading reports that Gainesville had the lowest unemployment rate in the state of any city, any good sized city. And basically, I think we're sort of insulated, except for the older people whose stock market fall has ruined their current income, but presumably will come back in a reasonable period of time. Next 4 or 5 years. JG: Yeah, if they live long enough to see it. MJ: You looked like you were maybe wanting to add something to this or -- JG: Well [he] doesn't read The Gainesville Sun or go online very much in sites and in around Gainesville. But there's plenty of crime here and you've obviously heard or seen the spike in crime in the figures. We have a new police chief, although I guess that's with the city of Gainesville. But yeah, I participate. I'm volunteering right now with Peaceful Paths, which is a domestic violence shelter. And I travel through some of those parts of town and some of my clients are in those parts of town. Now with east-west problems. And there is a racial divide in this town. That's why, you know, the building of certain items -- I wish I could be more specific now. But there was an instance of, where were we putting our money -- oh oh, the golf course, the city run golf course. People were up in arms over that, that there's much greater need over on the east side for civic improvements. SG: Instead of a golf course. JG: Instead of a golf course. Or the golf course has managed to maintain itself for so long it can stay just the way it is, thank you very much, without any further investment being made to it. MJ: One of the other things that people on both sides of the question seem to want to refer to when we talk about this current moment is, the current administration and what it means to have gone from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. And particularly in Florida where the last couple of election cycles have been so unusual. You were here for the 2004 election and then again in 2008. Can you tell me a little bit about how you see the political lay of the land in Gainesville, and how the whole, kind of, electoral season went down here? SG: Well I don't have any real views about the local political scene. I don't pay any attention to it. It's controlled by the university. That is the university community, which is insulated from Alachua County, which is a rural redneck county. And of course, that's true for other cities in Florida. But at any rate, I only pay attention to the national scene. And there, I think, Obama is proving to be a disappointment based on inexperience. Today's paper pointed out that they're going to pile on these, what do they call these things, why congress passes all these -- JG: Yeah, the adornments. SG: -- the pig -- not pig -- MJ: The riders onto the -- SG: Yeah. They said something with pigs in it. Earmarks, earmarks, that's what it is, right. Oh by the way, Gainesville used to be known as Pigtown. Gainesville was the major hog processing center in the state for many, many years. And it was picked as the location for the University of Florida, because it's midway between Miami and Pensacola. People don't realize it, but when the state of Florida was created around 1832, after we stole it from the Indians, Pensacola was the major industrial hub, and the main industrial center for the state. All the train lines ran to Pensacola and the Gulf of Mexico and the only -- MJ: Was Pensacola on the road that went from D.C. to New Orleans? My geography is a little -- SG: Yes it would be. MJ: It was? OK. SG: Yeah. But if you went from Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, you would go through Pensacola. MJ: OK. SG: And because there was a big port there, the rail head there, it was the major economic center. It wasn't until 75 to 100 years later that the East Coast of Florida was developed. Jacksonville was the second big city. I had worked in Florida in the mid 60's. And at that time Orlando was a hick town. It wasn't until Disney came that put Orlando on the map. Of course Miami grew because of the resort area. But I think the current political situation is one of disappointment across the board. And I think it's mainly just his inexperience. MJ: So for you, that's more important than the ideological differences between him and McCain? SG: Yeah. I'm interested in the practical consequences. I think that McCain would've been a more mature person, much more sophisticated politically, than Obama. I think Obama is being -- having his ass kicked by his own party, with the earmarks and with the war in Afghanistan, he's in a heads I win, tails you lose situation in Afghanistan. If he sends in 40,000 troops, then we'll have Mrs. what's her name, I can't think of the gal who used to camp outside Bush's house, she'll be out camping in front and the anti-war people are going berserk. On the other hand, if he sends the 40,000 troops-- I'm sorry, if he doesn't send it, then the Republicans will say that he's lost the war in Afghanistan, which he said was the main war. And the same thing with health care. JG: Yeah but don't you think the Nobel Peace Prize might sway his decision now? SG: Well here's what he's being criticized about, not the Nobel Peace Prize, but the trip to Copenhagen. JG: Oh for the Olympics. SG: Olympics, right. We've got 20,000 troops in Afghanistan. So he gets in the plane, he flies somewhere in Europe, and he talks to the commander of the troops on the ground for 25 minutes. Then he runs off to la-la land, spends two days trying to get the Olympics in his hometown, doesn't really reflect the priorities one would expect from a president who's involved in a war. So I think he's been politically naive and inexperienced and has been hurt by his inexperience. I don't agree with a lot of McCain's ideas, but I think he would have made a stronger, more sophisticated president. And now we'll hear from Jean. JG: I don't know that I can comment at this time. You know people, even young people, do learn. SG: Oh he's learning, he's learning. JG: And when you asked the question about -- your initial question about, what is exciting, or what do you find most remarkable in this country at the time. To me, it's the promise of change. The point is that, at least some in this country have realized that we're at a turning point for our economic structure, for our health care structure, probably for our education structure. How often does it happen that suddenly people learn these harsh lessons, if you will, and are poised to try to fix them? If the Democrats could ever coalesce-- I mean what they're doing even with the health care is kind of sad. But my answer to that not would have been, oh the economics and the effect it's having on everybody, it's the fact that this country has suddenly had a wake-up call in so many critical areas that we're going to have to deal with. And sometimes it takes a leap of faith even if the president doesn't have a lot of experience. He is our president. MJ: Are you basically optimistic or basically pessimistic about the near future? JG: Well you can't be pessimistic and optimistic, we have to be one or the other. It's got to be a basic optimism straight through. But I'm realistic in that the next couple of years, until we get the job market back functioning again, is going to be hard on an awful lot of people. And that's the cycle of the money running throughout society. And until we find a way -- I don't know that it's the dispensation of medical care, or the payment of medical care that we have to be addressing. I think what we do in this country, that our treatment modes are probably fine, but it's our payment modes that need the work. Health care needs to be changed. We've got too many little kids going unattended by their parents. SG: I think the big issue about medical care for me, is not the cost, I don't mind spending more money. In fact it's impossible to do this without spending more money. But to me the big issue about medical care that nobody talks about is, if they give insurance to 29 million or 20 million people, where are the doctors and hospitals to take care of them? Right now if you call a doctor, with any sort of a specialty, it takes you at least 30 days to get an appointment. And if you've got 20 million more people having insurance and getting appointments, it's going to look like the British system or the Canadian system until the medical economy grows. I mean, it takes six or eight years to train doctors, and it takes longer than that to build hospitals. JG: Yes, but a lot of these doctors who have been in training the last six or eight years, have been well rewarded by a system that causes them to go into high paid specialist. And we're already worried -- SG: Sure. JG: about running out of family doctors. SG: And the surgeon make $800 [an hour], yeah. JG: In a lot of cases, if you could get people into the family doctor, you might not need the specialist after that. SG: Yeah, but if the family doctor makes $200.00 an hour, and the surgeon makes $800.00, why the hell would anyone become a family doctor? JG: Well, but maybe the pay scales are going to be realigned. That's part of the future of medicine. And the old timer's are resenting it, because they see that changing tide coming. And they know -- heck the doctor we had in Virginia used to get angry about it. SG: The old timers are the ones who use the doctors more. So if access to medical attention is reduced by the numbers for say, the next 10 years, which I think would be the outcome, it's going to make the old timers very, very unhappy. MJ: I want to come back to the optimism, pessimism question with you, though. SG: Sure. MJ: Although I have a sense of which side of the spectrum you're going to come down on, but I want to hear more about it. But first, tell me what would be the single thing that would make you happiest that Obama might do in the realm of health care. SG: Oh, health care? MJ: What are you yearning to see from the White House on health care? SG: Well first of all, the problem with the public option is, we already have a public option. It's called Medicare. Medicare has no competition. It is the complete, exclusive health care provider for millions of millions of people. And so people used to say, well the simple solution is just make Medicare available to everybody. That's a typical liberal idea. It's logical, it's simple, and it should work. But like most liberal ideas, they won't work. Because the problem was liberalism is, not that the ideas are bad, the ideas are fine, but the way I explain the difference between liberalism and conservative viewpoints is, I used to work at the Justice Department. There's a painting on the wall that says, “The life of the law has not been logic, but experience." So the liberal approach to solving problems is the logical one. If people are poor, they have children that they can't raise, let's give them money. And that's what was in the welfare programs for generations until it really proved counterproductive. The idea is terrific. Help poor people. But the vehicle to do it, turned out to be impractical and counterproductive. So to me, the thing I like about conservative ideas is, I think they're more realistic. They're not as happy and as nice and clean, simple, as the liberal ideas, but I think they work a little better. Simply because they take into account the realities of human failure and human competition. MJ: How would you describe your own political education? You said earlier you're 72 years old? SG: 71. MJ: 71. So what would be the crucial years, and what would be the crucial lessons from your lifetime, in arriving at this philosophy that you sound very solid with. JG: [Laughing] It was the mural that he saw every day. SG: I saw that mural every day. You know, I don't know that I could really answer the question. I think that I'm a realist. Let me give you some concrete examples of what I mean. I very strongly believe in a woman's right to have an abortion. I believe in that as much as I believe in the second amendment right for people to own firearms. But I see them both as conservative ideas. I don't see one as liberal. I think that's liberal label is misconstrued on many issues, simply because of the political persuasion of people. But if you look at the ideas carefully, they really are both conservative ideas. The idea is that women, should have full reproductive rights. And if they don't want to have a child, they should have the right to not have a child. And that right belongs to them as free citizens as opposed to the government or somebody imposing their own moral framework on other people. To me, the essence of liberalism is, what's the word, elitism. We can do things better. The people at Harvard and Yale, not Princeton, Harvard and Yale are smarter than everybody. And if we can nationalize all these programs and have one program, everything will work smoothly. That's the essence of liberalism, which I dislike. I think that diversity is very healthy. So that if you have 50 political systems, and 50 educational systems, I see nothing wrong with that. And if you want to have commonality, as long as it's entered into freely and voluntarily, I don't have a problem with that. But the idea of controlling the country through the government to me, is the essence of liberalism, which I do not like. JG: But do you really think that Barack Obama wants to control the country through--? SG: Well you know, it's interesting when people talk about the president, Bush or Obama, or anybody, they talk about, well he runs the country. Well they don't really run the country, they-- JG: Of course not. SG: --just run the government. But that's not the way it's seen. And Congress's power is so broad, that they try to run the country and not just do the things-- to me the government's role is to do the things that people can't do for themselves, including health care, including education, and highways, and so on. Which all is basic socialism, there's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing terrific about capitalism, it sucks in many ways. But in general, it works to provide the most for the most people, and provides the most personal freedom. MJ: What's your feeling about the state of conservatism today? Because you're-- SG: In great trouble, great trouble. MJ: You're a conservative of a very particular stripe, and your kind of conservatism does not seem to be carrying the day within the Republican Party. What's your feeling about that, and how do you see the lay of the land on the conservative side of the spectrum? SG: They're in a great deal of trouble because, I forget the name of Obama's-- Rahm Emanuel-- was brilliant when he categorized and labeled Rush Limbaugh as the head of the Republican Party. That was really brilliant, because Limbaugh's a schmuck. And the problem with the Republican Party is, that it's symbolized by Southern religious leaders. Or not religious leaders, but Southern people with heavy religious persuasion who want to keep and introduce that-- JG: Fundametalists. SG: --religious-- yeah the fundamentalists-- I thought President Bush violated his constitutional oath, not when he went to war and-- I think his motives in going to war are fine, wrong but fine. His motives were not bad. But he should have left his religious beliefs upstairs in the White House, and not brought them downstairs and made them part of his government programs. And we haven't even really talked about the big issue. I don't think the economic problem is the big issue, and I don't think that the war in Afghanistan or Iraq is the big issue, and health care is not the big issue. The big issue, which people don't realize, which is the sleeping giant, is immigration. People don't realize America has been invaded. There are now approximately 20 million Mexicans living in [the United States], half of them have been legalized, the other half are waiting to be legalized. And there are another 10 or 20 million more, or even more than that, waiting to come into the United States. And what that threatens is, without the consent of the American people, to fundamentally change America, where you'll have 20% of the population of Latino extraction, you know, Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and so on. And it'll bring economic, social and political changes. For example, it will greatly empower the Catholic Church and increase the competition between the Catholic Church and Protestantism. And I'm not looking ahead, I'm not looking at next year, or the next two, I'm looking ahead 20 years from now, 30 years from now. And if they legalized these illegal aliens, of course, the ones who are here, and even the illegals who are already having children, and if they can hang on living in the shadows, their children become citizens. And so America's population is being changed against its will. Maybe that's too strong, but without its consent. MJ: In your view, what's the proper policy response to that? What's the thing that Bush should have done, or that Obama should do? SG: The easy answer is to build a wall. I think the wall is, that's not the real answer. The real answer is to take these billions of dollars that we're pissing away in Afghanistan and Iraq, and put them into Mexico. And build up the Mexican economy so it's comparable to Canadian economy. You don't see many Canadians running into the United States to become citizens. And that's what needs to happen to Mexico. I don't know why South American countries and many other Catholic countries are political failures, but they certainly are. And the people in Mexico are certainly exercising, they're voting with their feet by coming to the United States. They're not stupid about it. I think the big cannard in all of this is, is "Well, they're just coming to work." That's not really true. I think most of them want to become citizens. Even if they can't become citizens, to have children here and live in the shadows for these, whatever years. And this is the same thing of all the Europeans who came to America. They want a better life for the children. And that's what the Mexicans-- nothing wrong with the Mexicans, they're no better or different than the Italians or Germans or the Jews or the Russians or the Irish. It's just that there are so many of them. And because they have a distinct economic and political-- I mean their economics are fine. They're hard working people, they contribute to the economy, but we didn't ask them to come. We didn't invite them. MJ: Do you expect anyone, in either party, to adopt your hemispheric approach to the issue? SG: Well I think that it's an issue that politicians recognize as having a very strong fairness based anti-- what do you call it when you legalize them. When you-- MJ: Amnesty or-- SG: No, no. When you legalize-- JG: Naturlization. SG: Yeah. If you made these people citizens, I think there's an enormous, probably 85% of the American people, oppose it. And the politicians are scared to death of it. And nobody talks about it, and nothing's going to be done about it. JG: Yeah. It's the third rail for re-elections. MJ: Right, unless you take, kind of, the Pete Wilson approach and just scapegoat immigrants and say the easy thing about immigration. SG: Well it's not going to solve the problem. MJ: It's not going to solve the problem, but it makes for good politics, at least in certain locales. SG: Oh sure, Texas. Who the hell is for legalization in Texas? In fact, Bush became, I remember reading articles in local papers that Bush became very unpopular in Texas, because he wanted to-- he didn't want to legalize them, but he wanted to make it legal for them to come and work there. Which is really, just the first step. Like in New York, Hillary Clinton originally wanted to have driver's licenses issued by the state of New York in Spanish. But the people-- there was a huge political outcry and she backed down. MJ: So this was all, kind of in the context of talking about American conservatism. What's your outlook? What do you expect to see in conservative politics over the next couple of years? SG: I'm not-- MJ: Who are the figures to keep an eye on, who do you expect to emerge as a leader? SG: The one guy I like is Eric Cantor. To me, he's the number three guy in the house. He's from Virginia. JG: Talk about inexperience. SG: No, no, he's not inexperienced. And what the Republicans need is an Obama. They need somebody young. I think Cantor's about the same age, about 40. Somebody young who's conservative, who's not tied to the Christian right, who can put forward an image. I mean, the truth is that Obama, won on two things, one was Bush's incompetence, and the second was Obama's image. He made a really-- presents himself well, speaks very well. That's the trouble. He runs around speaking, and speaking, and speaking, and he doesn't do anything. JG: He's figuring it out. SG: Right. So the Republicans need an Obama. That's the simple answer. MJ: Have you been surprised that more mainstream Republicans-- I'm thinking about people like Arlen Specter, people like Olympia Snowe. SG: I know Arlen Specter. I've spoken with him. I worked with him a little bit. MJ: Oh really? SG: Mmm-hmm. MJ: But have you been surprised that people of that kind of brand-- SG: You mean a, what do you call it, a Rockefeller Republican, a moderate Republican? MJ: Right. That they haven't been more energetic in trying to quiet the far right, or even distance the Republican Party from people like Rush Limbaugh and others? SG: Right. Well don't laugh, but I thought that, what's his name, Rudy Giuliani, would be somebody who would fit in that mold. He was a big city mayor, as Republicans go, he's liberal. I don't know where he stands on women's rights and that stuff, but somebody like that was really needed. Unfortunately, he was quite stupid. He put all of his eggs in the Florida basket, and ran down there and got killed. Whoever told him that destroyed his political career. He should have run in the Northeast. Something interesting you may not realize, I'll tell you about something I found out here in Gainesville. Mitt Romney, who to me, would be I think, a middle of the road, not strictly middle of the road, but a much better candidate. There's enormous resentment, distrust, of Mormons. I don't know much about Mormons. They discovered the golden dishes in upstate New York, and Joe Smith, and all of that. But Southern Christians don't think Mormons are Christians. So Romney is dead. I mean, he has no political future. You can't carry Republicans-- you've got to include the South, but you need a moderate leader. And I don't know who the hell is going to emerge, if anybody. I thought, I like McCain because of one thing. I don't like his views, some of the views, but I thought he was an honest man, and that's why I voted for him. Because I thought he was personally honest. MJ: I still haven't forgotten the pessimism question, but first another layer-- SG: I think the other issues will go away. I think that we'll outgrow the economic distress. I think we'll get out of the wars, eventually. I think the wars were a disaster. MJ: That's what I want to talk to about, actually. Another layer to this whole historical moment that we're in has to do with 9/11 and what that has meant for this country. Especially since you've been in the legal world and the criminology world so much of your career. I was wondering what your view is of what 9/11 has ended up meaning to the political culture of this country over the last eight years or nine years. SG: Well it's empowered some conservatives. That is, the fear generated by it. You know, one of the big differences between my growing up and the current generation is, that I grew up in World War II and I remember the war. I remember being in the war. I started school in 1943 in the middle of the war. When the war was over, and I was now a teenager in the '50s, America was the world leader in many respects from the point of view of national security and so on. But also was a time of great economic growth, prosperity. Later in my teen years when the Cold War came out, we had to practice diving under the table for an atomic bomb, but nevertheless grew up in a time of great optimism and security. And to me that's the fundamental change for kids today, is growing up in a world which Americans don't feel very secure in. MJ: Do you regard that as the most significant change you've seen in your lifetime? SG: Yeah, I would say so. Yeah, I think the economic thing will pass in a few years. But the terrorism thing I think, is going to be around for a long time.Mainly because it's really a religious war. Nobody dares to say that. But I really think it is a religious war. MJ: Jean, what do you think is the most important change, or how would you answer that question? What's the most important change you've seen in your lifetime? JG: That's a hard one for me to answer, because my mind goes to things like, medical advances, saving lives, the more liberal artsy kind of thing. Politically there's-- I mean, I would agree with-- SG: You don't have to agree, whether or-- JG: --with what's his name, here. [LAUGHTER] SG: Shepard, Shepard. JG: That sense of security is gone. We're not the world leaders. And certainly what Bush has done to our reputation. And our functioning in the world has been difficult. But there is that insecurity, and it's just not a safe world. I mean, I think about the fact that as-- I used to play outside, I used to ride my bike all over. As a young woman, I used too travel down into Manhattan, meet my friends, go to the theater, come home at 1 o'clock in the morning on the bus, transfer buses in the middle of Flushing to get home. That world that I grew up in doesn't really exist anymore as far as-- SG: That's a good point. It's like a second pillar. The first pillar I talked about was national security, the terrorism threat from 9/11. [She's] talking about the broader societal issue related to abuse of children, children being kidnapped, women are attacked more. Now, it may be that statistically the numbers the same, but because of the media revolution-- JG: Publications. Right, we're much more aware of it now. SG: The other day Walter Cronkite died. So at the time we said, jeez there are only three broadcasters. You got Walter Cronkite, you got Huntley and Brinkley, and you got Dan Rather, whoever was on CBS. That's all there were. Today you've got 50 or 60 of these guys on national TV. JG: And women. MJ: And women. SG: And women, I'm sorry. Provided they have nice breasts, and they're willing to show them. And bleach their hair, and wear short dresses. JG: Oh what a cynic you are. MJ: Do you think that, in those terms, when you think about just the number of channels out there, does the advent of the coaxial cable end up being one of the most important things in our political life? I mean, one of the things that's striking to me, is now everyone has their own kind of boutique realities. And if you want to find a viewpoint that bolsters your own, just surf around and you will find it. And you have people watching FOX news, and you have people watching Keith Olbermann, and never the twain shall meet. And we can't even have a discussion about some of the basic, common questions before us. SG: Well here's the problem… because of our background and our work and so on, we watch the news every night at dinner. Instead of having a discussion over dinner, we watch the news and talk about the news. But one night we'll watch NBC, another night ABC. Or I'll watch FOX news first-- JG: Not if I can help it [Laughs]. SG: I'll watch FOX news. Then I get sick of what they're saying, I switch to CNN. So I watch both of them. JG: Oh but the most amazing transformation in this house is PBS. Do you remember the days when we would watch PBS? SG: PBS television is terrific. PBS radio is awful. JG: But I'm talking about the news now. You'd hear two seconds on a particular political story, on the main broadcast, and one night you actually said to me, all right, let's watch PBS now and we'll get the whole story. SG: Right. JG: I was very proud of you on that one. [Laughs] SG: Right. The national news is a joke. Today the president met and talked about what to do in Afghanistan. They're deciding whether or not to admit 40,000 more troops. End of story. You know, about 30 seconds. And when you watch the regular, not the regular, the regular cable news, CNN or FOX, every 2 seconds it's, Alert! Alert! There's been an accident in Toledo, Ohio. A truck laden with high explosives has run into the Toledo River and so on. JG: No that's the New York news-- SG: No, that's the cable news. It's awful, awful. Except for, what's his name, Lehrer. But on the other hand, [Jean] listens to PBS radio. The only trouble with PBS radio is, it's not about America. We listen for 20 minutes about hip hop music in Tibet, and then some other-- JG: Honey, it's just a much smaller world than you're used to. SG: In Ceylon. Yeah. Meanwhile, the Rapido River in Texas is overflowing and 6,000 home have been washed out. JG: They cover that, too. SG: Yeah, they cover that. No they don't. So there's a big difference between it. MJ: So now, back to the optimism, pessimism question. I'm going to ask it a little bit differently though, for you. What worries you most? SG: You know, I'm 71 years old. I'm going to live another 10 or 12 years. So I think about my grandchildren, and what they're going to grow up in. The economy will right itself. The forces of capitalism restrained should bring back the prosperity, bring back people's 401Ks. We will eventually get out of Afghanistan, and I'm not sure why we're there. But I think those problems will solve themselves. But I do worry about the immigration issue, because it threatens to change the fabric of American life, long term. I'll give you, for instance. I know some people in the Canadian government. And in the Canadian government you cannot rise to a significant position unless you're bilingual and speak French. And it's written into their law. And eventually, the same thing could happen in America, Spanish becoming a mandatory language. Everybody's got to take it through high school. And everything would be in English and Spanish. If that's something that the American public wanted to do freely and voluntarily, that's fine, but I think that the illegal immigration-- people already recognize that Latinos are now the biggest, most influential swing group in the country. And California is a good example. MJ: Florida's turning out to be a good example of that as well. SG: Believe it or not, it's not as bad in Florida. Gainesville has no serious, significant Spanish population. JG: Well they're migrants, so they don't stay around. SG: Yeah we don't have migrant industries here, except growing marijuana. [Laughter] There's a big industry in northern Florida related to the growth of marijuana. People buy rural farms, convert them to growing marijuana. And the people who work there, on these grow farms, are all employed from-- brought up from Miami. But that's really nickles and that's really not very significant. I think the other significant thing about Florida is, in about 20 years, it'll be the second most popular state, and pass New York. Which isn't altogether bad. I think New York is overrated. When we were kids, we thought New York was wonderful. We even lived there in the '70s on the Upper East Side. We were just married and went to the theater at least once a week, and you could walk around. It was really lovely. But it's changed now. New York is a third world country. I would never want to live there again, or work there. The same for northern New Jersey. MJ: Well you've been very generous. Thank you for the time you've given me. Before I turn off the machine, is there anything that you feel that we should have addressed that we didn't? SG: I always used to do the same thing when I interrogated people. MJ: I'm not interrogating anybody, but you understand the tactic here. SG: Right. No I think I may have surprised you on the immigration issue. MJ: Well think that I might surprise you, because I have a very different view. But I basically agree, absolutely that we've been treating that issue since the '70s as a kind of, criminal justice issue, when it really is a hemispheric, economic issue. And and it's the short-sighted kind of politics that can never win. SG: Well I can see that the problem is economic at its roots, and there is an economic answer. And it would be far cheaper and more sensible to put that money into Mexico and bring it up. But legalization of the people I think carries serious political consequences. Not the least of which would be the power of the Catholic church. Which I regard as a serious issue, because the church is very active politically. MJ: Did you want to add anything? JG: No. SG: Oh you want to make a disclaimer now? JG: No, no. MJ: Well thank you, both. I really appreciate it. SG: Sure. […]

Jim Sleeper Interview Transcript

MATT JACOBSON: OK, just as a start do you mind while I set my levels, would you just say and spell your name, please? JIM SLEEPER: Sure. J-A-M-E-S S-L-E-E-P-E-R. James Sleeper, or Jim Sleeper actually, which is better. MJ: Great. JS: That's what I'll go by, is Jim. MJ: That's great. Do you mind just as a start-- oh, do you need that? JS: No, no, no, just so that I don't have to talk too loud. I just want to make sure you'll pick it up without my having to... OK, good. MJ: No, we're fine. Do you mind starting just by giving me a kind of biographical thumbnail sketch: Who you are, where you're from, what you've done, what you're doing now? JS: Sure, sure. Presently, I'm a part-time, I'm a lecturer in political science at Yale. And I'm a writer. I'm basically a writer-- is that coming through? MJ: Yeah, we're good. JS: --ethnic and racial relations and politics in New York and nationally. How's that, that's good? MJ: Yeah. JS: And it took me a long time to realize that what I think I've been doing all these years as a writer is looking for some kind of civic republican tradition that is inevitably Left in many ways, but draws certain wisdom from certain kinds of conservative sources too-- certain things from Edmund Burke and others. The more deeply I think about what kind of country this is and how we might conceivably mobilize it, I think it's a country that is plagued by capitalist excess, but that the only way to get at it is through reaching into some deeper currents that are in the country itself that are not definably Marxist or definably Left. And it's very hard to explain what that is, because it sometimes means I wind up criticizing the progressive side. But of course I abominate what the Conservative movement has become and what corporate and finance capital have become. And you know there is a long tradition of American resistance to capitalist excesses that was not always only Leftist. It was indigenous. Some of it was southern agrarian. So I am mucking around among these undercurrents looking for traction points-- ways to communicate with a public that might respond to those kinds of appeals. MJ: How would you describe your own kind of coming to consciousness politically, but also your political education? JS: It's interesting. My parents were Hubert Humphrey Democrats, pro civil rights. But I grew up in the '50s and '60s that way. They were fans of Adlai Stevenson and so on. And when I came to Yale as an undergraduate in 1965, that's essentially what I was. And I think I was radicalized more by the Vietnam War than by the civil rights movement, which of course I had supported, but in the traditional liberal way. It was in confronting what the American state was becoming in the Vietnam War that I really began to question a lot of the basic assumptions of the American Republic. I spent years on the Left-- in the activist movement Left-- as a consequence of that. I wrote for the Village Voice and I'm still on the editorial board of Dissent, the Democratic Socialist Quarterly. And I think a lot of my journalism was always basically about rousing the people-- awaking people-- that kind of muckraking impetus with a progressive bent. Lately, I don't know whether it's partly just because I get older or because my views of what's possible have been more nuanced-- and we've learned some of this from watching Obama-- what is and isn't possible and what its pitfalls are, my writing is a little bit more reflective and I'm reaching for other currents than the usual kind of movement mobilizing type of writing that I've done in the past. So I'm struggling with that. That's where I'm basically at. MJ: What's your own sense of, as a writer, who your public is or your publics? How do you think about the kind of fragmented electorate that we're looking at and how do you define who you are trying to reach? JS: That's a good question. I think the only public that I can reach because of the way I write are young and middle-aged people who are interested in civic republican leadership-- that's small "r" on the republican you know-- people who are trying to figure out how you can balance the contending forces in ways that allow us to move forward-- people who are already aware of that dilemma and who are reaching for it. Now that can include community activists, organizers. I hope it does. But I think it also includes students and young people and those who already agree with me in older age. So it's not a very large public that I'm reaching for anymore, although I still do newspaper work and still publish things for larger audiences and enjoy being in contact and dialoguing with them. MJ: Do you still think it's possible to change minds with writing? JS: Not with print as such. But I think we always overestimate it. Maybe when Tom Paine wrote Common Sense -- you know print was the only medium there was -- and so you changed minds. And everyone was literate. Now people are aliterate. They're not illiterate. But they don't read seriously. MJ: Right. And they also, I mean, one of the things that's been so striking in the last-- well especially in the last decade-- but probably in the last three-- since the coaxial cable probably as a turning point-- that people have their kind of own boutiqued realities-- JS: Yes. MJ: --and they cherry pick the available news. They are so entrenched in their own data sets and their own views that there's no really public common anymore, and I wonder how you face that as a writer? JS: First of all, I agree with that. In fact, Seyla Benhabib says it's as if people are walking around with bubble wrap around their brains and they just let in what they want as they read. So I'm agreeing with what you're saying. I'm extremely frustrated that way. I find that the general mass media is so corporate dominated that I find it harder and harder to get published there, except sometimes when the stars align right. And so I wind up blogging in places like Talking Points Memo, which has a political junkie, left of center, policy wonkish readership. And so there is a certain amount of preaching to the converted or holding internal debates. I think all I can do or the way I meet it, is I try and pitch what I'm writing to those who are trying to reach a mass audience but who check in with places like the ones I write for to take their bearings. I write with them very much in mind. I do not write to preach to the converted, preach to the choir, to rouse the people who already agree with me. I write to be a little counterintuitive and pull in those who I know are just kind of peeking into the site and say, here are some things you ought to carry back to the mainstream. So it's very nuanced in that sense. And I get good responses fr! om people. All of these blog sites have three audiences. There's those who post the comments, which run the gamut from the ridiculous to good. And then there are those who write to you personally. Many people read these sites and would never post a comment, but they do read them. And they xerox, they print it out. And then there are those who will link you and comment on what you're saying somewhere else. So those three layers make it reasonably satisfying. And in the old days, when I did a column for the New York Daily News, I could ride home on the subway and watch people reading my column, but I never felt that it had all that much impact. I'm not so sure that the vast audience really converted into political mobilization. It was kind of a distraction, a moment's entertainment on the subway, or whatever. MJ: Right, OK. Well, let's talk about this current moment that we're in in the U.S. I've been traveling around talking to all sorts of different people, and the phrase "this current moment" has a lot of weight and a lot of power. People get very passionate about the idea that this is an extraordinary moment in many ways. There's no consensus at all about what's important about it, what's significant, what's interesting. But there is this wide sense from right to left and in-between that this is an extraordinary moment. When I say that phrase to you, what comes to mind? What is it about this moment that strikes you? JS: Frankly, Edward Gibbon's description of the moment when Augustus was leading Rome from being a republic into an empire. I think that during the Bush years, especially if we rolled this moment back just a few years and take the past five years, this moment is a time when we still have the forms and institutions of a republic but the centralization of power and the swiftness and darkness of the strong undercurrents that are anti-republican is really frightening. I sense that in the media. Of course we sense it in the industrial, in our health care, and military-industrial nature of things. I feel that there is a kind of corporate ethos which has nothing to do with the Lockean entrepreneurial capitalism that one might have supported and is really frightening. And I think this current moment is a moment in which we are on the verge of losing the soul, as well as the institutions, of a vigorous republican-- small "r" republican-- polity, where people are vigorously engaged in self-government. I think people are vigorously engaged in distractions, like Tea Party explosions and things like that. That is not self-government. Alexander Hamilton had a great quote-- a great remark in one of The Federalist Papers where he said, "It seems that it has been left to Americans to decide the important question whether a people can really govern itself through reflection and choice, or whether it will always have to depend for it's political constitution on accident and force. " This is that moment. We're figuring out whether we're going to be able to keep this. And it really does depend ultimately on a vigilant citizenry. And there isn't any ideology or set of institutions that can guarantee that spark of vigilance, and virtue, and balance in people. The American Republic was always staked on that. And it reached it only in the breach. It was often worse than that. We know there have been many terrible moments of mob violence, of breakdown. So I console myself with that-- that I say, well is this current moment really more perilous than McCarthyism was or than World War I, when the government was almost t! otalitarian? I don't know the answer to that. MJ: Are there any-- well, so let's parse this out a little bit. First of all, are you hopeful? JS: I'm hopeful without being optimistic. I'm hopeful. In other words, I still think it's possible. I do think the Obama campaign, while it has led to many disappointments, it was more than an extended Michael Jackson performance in which a bunch of kids on the internet got excited. It was more than that. There was something really stirring in the public. I don't think it's been well sustained or well organized. But that really made me feel that I was not alone. After the 2004 election when Bush was reelected, I think many of us really thought we're heading into a tunnel that it's going to be hard to come out of. And the Obama campaign lifted that fear and opened things up again. But since then I think we're learning, those of us who may have had some illusions, that the Office of the Presidency is constrained and driven by a powerful confluence of forces that he alone cannot turn aside. So in that sense I'm hopeful that if this dawning awareness that we all have can lead to! a second kind of movement with new leadership-- not just his but somebody, some other's-- a combination of wise leadership and a new stirring. I'm hopeful. MJ: We'll talk about the first year of the Obama administration, but let's back up and talk about that wave of hope from roughly maybe February to November of '08-- the campaign season, first the primaries and then the general election. Can you tell me your experience of those months: what you saw, what you felt, what your sense of possibility was during that time? JS: I started out early in 2008 probably very worried. I was still haunted by the 2004 election and what had ensued-- the miserable four years of Katrina and all of it. And I wasn't sure that Hillary Clinton would survive the Fox News "vast right wing conspiracy," as she called it. I don't call it that, but I understand why she said that. I thought these forces are so powerful that once again we're going to watch the Democrats fight each other and then get slaughtered. So I started out skeptical and thinking that maybe on balance Hillary was best, but I felt doomed. I would never warm to John Edwards. I don't know why. I had a visceral feeling that while he was saying the right things, I just didn't click with him. Obama I was watching, but like many other people, especially me as someone who has spent years writing about racial and ethnic politics, here I am the great champion of transracial hope in terms of the things I write-- the antithesis of identity politics-- and yet! I thought, but the country isn't ready. You know, I remember, when I was going around saying to people early in 2008 was, it's an actuarial question: how many of the people who will never pull the lever for a black man are still alive? We have to wait for a layer of people to just pass from the scene before a guy like this can get elected. And I said, I don't know if we're there yet. As I listened and watched his cadences and the poetry of the campaigning, I realized that he was hitting all the right notes that mattered to me. And I became a strong, hopeful supporter of his. And I watched him go through his trials with Jeremiah Wright and all these other things. And I began to just really see that something was coalescing around this guy. Frankly, it was everything that I felt that I had been saying in my books and in my journalism and there had been no one to point to. I was always just saying how Al Sharpton was getting it wrong, or how this one or that one. Here was a guy who got it. And clearly what was exciting to me was that a lot of other people got it. It wasn't just me writing The Closest of Strangers or Liberal Racism. He got it. And other people were warming to it. There was something post-racial about it: his dogged refusal to get down into that muck-- I loved that. There were people to my left who were saying he can't be really representativ! e of the right things. I wound up feeling OK, he is 1/3 Harvard neoliberal, he's 1/3 Chicago pol-- neither of which two things I admire very much, but you have to have that to get elected. And he's 1/3 legacy of the civil rights movement community organizer, Reinhold Nieburh-- you know, a wise man. And I said, the 2/3rds are going to outvote the 1/3, but this the best one that I get. And so that's how I felt. MJ: Do you remember the moment that you first thought, wow, this guy could win? JS: I don't know that there ever was a moment. I really was haunted by the actuarial question. I remember toward the end, the polls were so weird. I think I was always on tenderhooks. I was never going around saying he's gonna clinch it. And you remember, I mean I'm sure many others have mentioned this, that in the week before the election, everybody's mood was going up and down, despite the nuttiness of Palin, and you could see all the neocons sort of defecting and saying whoops, this isn't what we bargained for when we joined the right. But you thought, oh my God. So, no, I know that there was a moment when I felt that he deserved to win and that he was playing it right. But I just was never one of those people who thought, oh this is going to happen. MJ: Can you describe some of what you saw around you? You were on a college campus through that period? JS: Yeah, basically in New York and at Yale. Basically, well, that's right, yeah. MJ: And were you sensing a different kind of response among your students to Obama than you had seen before? JS: Yes. Students were warming to him regardless of whether they were moderates or leftists or something. And even some of the "honorable conservative Republican" types-- he was turning their heads. They were kids who had taken their own liberal education seriously enough that they picked up on certain resonances. And I remember talking with a couple kids who had been in the party of the right in the Yale political union and they just felt that he had a certain nobility, a certain character. They recognized what it meant to be a black man coming through. They were not racist in their inclination. They realized that this was something formidable. And they were embarrassed by Palin. And I actually know, and I can mention this because it's not private-- I've mentioned it in a TPM post-- Scott McConnell, who was the editor of The American Conservative magazine, was campaigning for Obama in Virginia in November, and in the end of October. These are people who-- and some kids at Yale were like that-- they just felt that he was saying something they believed in. And to me what it was, was this civic republican kind of thing: the idea that we're not just in a republic where we have checks and balances and representatives, but there's something that binds us together. There's a political culture that has to be nurtured with certain ideas of justice and fairness that we may disagree about how to apply them, but we spend some energy doing that. Obama was rejuvenating that. That's what I felt. And I saw people around Yale responding to that. MJ: So what's been your assessment of the first year of this administration? Here we are almost a year to the day-- a year and a week into this administration. JS: I'm one who was inclined to give him a lot of slack at first. I did not approve of the Geithner and Summers, the economy stuff. I'm not an expert on the economy. But I thought he went a little too far to the center. I knew he had to reassure a lot of people. And that he had to play his cards very carefully. I think he erred too much on the side of caution there. And I think that in many other ways, he kind of lost his momentum. This wonderful networked support movement that he had built had to be turned into a political organization. They kind of dropped the ball. They decided to play the inside beltway game. I think on the health care thing, I'm one of those who felt he gave too much over to Congress. I think he should have gone for it. I think he was right to try and do health care and get it through, but I think he could've rammed it through instead of letting them dither as much. Not quite rammed it through. MJ: Right. JS: I contrast him with FDR in the following sense precisely because FDR was a son of the plutocracy. He had grown up with great wealth. He had a certain aristocratic self-confidence, so he could get up in Madison Square Garden in 1936 and say, the bankers hate me and I welcome their hatred. Barack Obama, we soon discovered, cannot do that. First of all, if a black man just arches an eyebrow, people think he's full of rage. But secondly, he himself did not grow up with that sense of aristocratic entitlement. So he couldn't quite do what even Ted Kennedy could do, which is rail against the powers that be. I think we wanted to see a little of that. MJ: Are we the beginning to now-- I mean the State of the Union address and in his meeting with the Republican caucus last week? The tenor of both of those events was different from what we have seen in the previous year. JS: Yes, yes. MJ: How portentous is that in your view? JS: I think it's his best and highest card. I don't think he'll ever be convincing as an out and out populist. I think what was convincing in the State of the Union message and in the meeting with the Republicans in Baltimore was his civic republicanism saying, look, let's stop trying-- you know, he called them on their tactics in front of everyone. He didn't really denounce them as a bunch of plutocratic money changers, which I would have loved. He didn't do that. He basically said you have ideas. I have ideas. He tried to embarrass them by standards that everyone does profess to hold: the standards of fairness and decency and equity in the debate. MJ: Is that going to have traction with this crowd? JS: No. I think it helps him because I think a lot of Americans did watch and they said, I believe that too. And I do think the Republicans and the Fox News shouters have gone a little too far. But will those people stop doing it? No. And they will be right back to it. And they will be appealing once again. He may have given a couple of them a mild crisis of conscience. I think that the undercurrents in this society are really bad now. We have a "malevolent transformation," to use a term that the psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan talked about. People's wiring is-- thanks to a lot of things that are going on, and I do think that Fox News is part of it. I do think that the right-wing media assault plays on people's weaknesses and accustoms them to processing information in terms of fear and mistrust. And there's no incentivization to do it otherwise because there's a lot for these people to be mistrusting and fearing. They got the wrong target, though. Once you've become psychically wound up in processing information that way, you would feel almost like a chump if you turned over to a more positive kind of constructive way of doing like he did in the campaign. And I think that this is the great danger. I don't think he alone-- he can set an example and he can be very instructive. And I think he was that in the State of the Union and in the co! lloquy with the Republicans. But I think the undertows are so powerful that it's going to take more personal witness on the part of more people against those undertows. MJ: What's your sense, as a journalist, what is your sense of people like Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News shouters as you called them, do they believe what they're saying? Or is this is this a ratings game? Is it half and half? How do you understand their view of the world and their own understanding of the things they say? JS: I think that ratings lust has driven them to believe that they believe what they're saying. In other words, I think they're reaching for a hot button. I think intellectually they're very confused. If you really could get them in an ideal speech situation in which you were debriefing them on what they really believe, after reciting the usual conservative knee-jerk pieties, you would find that they're very confused. And that they don't really know what they believe. But they do have these "irritable metal gestures" as Lionel Trilling once said, that seek to resemble ideas. They are very, very committed to those gestures. They do get so much reinforcement in terms of the audiences for doing that. So I think they began with certain beliefs-- Reagan Democrat type beliefs: I'm a good guy; I'm basically a populist, but these liberals have screwed it up. They began telling themselves that. They believe that. But the ratings lust has overtaken and overdetermined their commitment ! to staying with it and saying it. It's a feedback loop that's reinforcing itself. I would like to think that after Katrina and after the miserable things in Iraq and after the melt-down in the economy, that they would finally have pinched themselves. But they don't seem to be able to. MJ: Well, and the more astonishing thing is how much kind of ideological space they occupy on the right side of things. I mean they've become really important to the Republican party-- JS: Yes. MJ: --in a way that, it's kind of mind-boggling. Among elected officials, are there any Republicans who you still to look to for some sense of the kind of civic-mindeness that you're talking about? JS: No. I'm sure there are some. I think we saw in Baltimore they're very good at pretending to be choir boys when they get up and address the President in front of the nation. They can sound civic republican. We want to dialogue with you. But no, I think the thoughtful ones have been driven out of the party for the most part. Look at these purity tests that they're now experimenting with the Republicans. They're trying to draw up a list of standards. And unless you meet eight out of ten, you won't be supported by the party in your campaign. That's a real litmus test that forecloses thought. It just short circuits any kind of honest debate. So I don't have much hope for the Republicans. I don't know where it's going to come from. You asked something else with that question though, I'm not sure-- MJ: No, I was just curious because I know that-- JS: You know who I felt saw this? I think if Sam Tanenhaus tells the truth when he writes Buckley's biography, when he finally publishes it, William F. Buckley I think was in despair at the end of his life. I think he saw what it had come to. He did not like these Bill O'Reilly type people. We know from his own Crossfire program he had a different manner. He sustained friendships across ideological divides. I mean I thought his ideas were fatuous, but he at least believed in a certain civility. And I think he looked at what both the Republican party and the conservative movement had become. Apparently he said to Tanenhaus or someone, we should never have let the neocons in. He really was despairing. MJ: Let me just ask you one last thing. We haven't yet about the economic collapse. What's been your experience of that? I was talking to someone who lives here in New York, who's unemployed, and she said-- and it's really haunting and bizarre-- because you can read about the scale of the crisis in the newspaper, but there's no kind of public markers of it, other than vacant real estate around the city. But you don't see bread lines, you don't see-- JS: No. MJ: --there aren't the kind of visual markers in our public culture the way there were in the Depression. And so what's your sense as a New Yorker? JS: Well, I'm living in Midtown now. And I'm a good observer of the cityscape: not only of all those vacancies all along Fifth Avenue, but the traffic is lighter on the streets too. The car traffic is lighter, because not as many people are coming to work. It happened at New Year's. Many people had leases that ran out at the end of the year. Businesses staggered on until the end of the year. We got back from a couple weeks away in January, and I really noticed it. Now what that means to me, those vacancies mean a lot of people are sitting home frantically sending out their resumes: secretarial type people, lower management people, and they're not finding anything. So I don't know if that will lead to bread lines, but I think a lot of people are right now running through the very, very last of what they've got. So I think it's getting worse. MJ: Yeah, I think it is too. JS: I think the visible markers-- I guess my answer to your question is, we may see soup lines. I hope it won't come to that. We're gonna see more visible markers soon. I'm experiencing it as a writer. The publishing industry is in a tailspin. It doesn't even know what it's going to do. And I think we writers are going to be back like on Grub Street, or a Balzacian…  or a Trollope--we're going to be begging for crumbs. Magazines that would pay you $5,000 for an essay are no longer there. And they know that you'll write for free because you gotta write, you gotta write, you want your audience. That's how they're treating us now. Sorry, we can't pay you. I joke that for blogging at TPM, I make minus $1.00 a word, because of the time I spend writing, they don't pay anything, you know. And I have to xerox my own -- You know, that can't go on forever. I mean I have some savings and I do do my teaching. But I think a lot of people like us who don't have the benefit of tenure are-- you do, right? MJ: Yeah. JS: Yeah. God bless you. But those who don't, I think they're really on thin ice now just keeping up appearances. A year from now, who knows? What do you think? I mean you must be, you're talking with people. MJ: Yeah. I agree with you. It's going to get worse before it gets better. And I think, in part, I think it's already worse than we know, in a certain way. JS: Yes, I agree. MJ: I mean, I think there are a lot of people living with their families. I mean there's a kind of hidden unemployed. JS: That's right. MJ: That can only go on for so long. JS: That's right. MJ: And I think the number of people who are one paycheck away from crisis is enormous. I think the number of people, as Obama said in the State of the Union, the number of people who are one illness away-- JS: That's right. MJ: --from crisis is enormous. But I do think there's a kind of hidden homeless, and I don't know how many millions of people we're talking about, but I think it's a lot. JS: That's right. MJ: People who have graduated college, who are back living with their parents. People older than that, who either have had a career or have had half a career and now are living with relatives. I mean there's, I think, more going on than meets the eye. JS: I think that's right. Yep, that's my sense also. I mean our daughter is 24 and she's at LSE now, so everything is in abeyance. But what she sees among her peers, it's not good. And you see in the columns that the kids write in the Yale Daily News, they are scared. They're lining up for interviews with the banks and Goldman Sachs. It's not that they believe in it, but they want to make something. They see nothing else out there. I don't know what form it's going to take. MJ: Yeah, I'm not sure either. Well, this has been great. Is there anything that you feel that we should have talked about, that we didn't touch on? JS: Nothing is jumping out. It'll come to me over lunch, which then it'll be too late because it will be noisy down there. No, I just really worry that it's just what we're saying. My sense is that beneath the surface, while people are keeping up appearances, we are headed for something really scary politically and that nobody-- I thank God that Obama is in the White House but, you know David Brooks, who is my least favorite person as a columnist, had a column the other day that was exactly right. He said Ross Perot is coming. He didn't mean the Ross Perot. He said somebody is going to be popping up soon saying the Democrats can't solve it, the Republicans are ridiculous, I'll solve it. And I think people are going to go for that, with the right kind of folksy spin. MJ: Is it inconceivable that Sarah Palin is that person? JS: I think it's inconceivable. But look at-- we had Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger elected. That's not inconceivable. Somebody like that. She's a little too far gone. MJ [Laughing]: One can hope. JS: Unbelievable. MJ: Well, with that, thank you very much. JS: Alright, my pleasure.

Gary Bretton-Granatoor Interview Transcript

MATT JACOBSON: OK, if you would, just say and spell your name while I get the levels right here. GARY BRETTON-GRANATOOR: Gary Bretton-Granatoor. G-A-R-Y. B, as in boy, R-E-T-T-O-N hyphen G-R-A-N-A-T-O-O-R. MJ: Great. OK, as a start, would you mind just giving me the brief autobiographical sketch -- who you are, where you've been, where you're from, what you're doing now? GBG: OK. I'll try my best. I'm a New Yorker by birth, proudly so. Born in the Bronx. Raised in a middle-class Jewish family with warm relations with my grandparents when they were still alive. My parents quickly moved to Westchester, making the forward movement from immigrant status. MJ: Your grandparents were from where? GBG: My grandparents were originally from Russia, Poland and Austria, when I think of all four of them. My grandparents were all born outside of this country, but immediately, when they were very, very young, came here. So they had very little memory of old country. They considered themselves American-born because they never remembered anything else. Jewish family, obviously. I grew up in this upwardly mobile middle-class family. My grandfather on my father's side was a pharmacist. He owned a 24-hour pharmacy in the Bronx. In fact, he had a PhD in mathematics. And he was known by everybody as Doc during the Depression. Because people couldn't afford to go to medical doctors, my grandfather had an examining room in the back of his drugstore. And he served as the medical point of interest for everybody in that community during those years in the early '30s. MJ: Was that largely for an immigrant community? GBG: Largely immigrant Jewish community in the Bronx -- in the south Bronx. My father followed in my grandfather's footsteps and also became a pharmacist. Went on and first had a small store in the Bronx. And when he aspired to move up to Westchester, he and an army buddy from the Korean War -- I use that term loosely because neither of them ever fought in the war, they actually tested urine samples at Whitehall Street for new recruits, because they were both trained as pharmacists. They never got farther away from home than having to take the subway downtown. But then the two of them bought a larger drugstore in Westchester. And that's when my parents moved up to Westchester. MJ: OK, so how old were you when you made that move from the Bronx to Westchester? GBG: I was rather young. My father finally bought the pharmacy when I was in about sixth grade. But we had already, at that point, lived in Yonkers. So I was going to school in Yonkers. And when it came time for me to think about junior high and high school -- I was an intellectually precocious kid-- The school system in Yonkers was less than stellar. And I had aspirations of grandeur, so I demanded that I wanted to go to Horace Mann or one of those snooty Ivy League schools. MJ: Which you did? GBG: Which I did. I applied and got into Horace Mann and did the reverse commute. I went from Westchester back down to the Bronx every day. And did my high-school years at Horace Mann. Was very much a child of the '60s and the very early '70s. For fun, we would take the subway down to the Columbia riots, though we were in eighth and ninth grade at the time. We knew what was going on. Involved in all the Vietnam War protests. In fact, we were among the last people to get draft numbers. MJ: So you did get a draft number? GBG: I did get a draft number. It was the last year of the draft. I got a rather low number, meaning -- a high number, so low probability. But I did have friends who had higher numbers. Although, there was no way in the world we were going to get drafted. There were several of us who planned an exodus to Canada. And I was involved in a lot of Marxist politics at the time. MJ: Describe that. Well, first of all, you graduated from high school in -- GBG: '74. MJ: '74. OK. Describe to me your coming to political consciousness. GBG: It was very, very young. My parents and grandparents were never outwardly politically involved. I mean, my father was a lifelong Democrat. And that was basically where the Jewish community was. Around the time that I became politically aware, I did talk to my grandfather about his politics and very early on, probably by seventh grade, knew that my grandfather was a longstanding Communist and a member of the Bund. He was a Bundist. My grandfather -- this is the one that owned the 24-hour drugstore -- obviously, in the '50s, kind of hid that when McCarthy was out. But that's where his heart was. And therefore, he never really talked about politics openly until I pressed him on it. And I became very fascinated by all of that -- by the fact that that was his religious expression. Because he would never set foot in a schul [synagogue]. MJ: I was curious about that. Your understanding of his politics -- was his route to that through a kind of Yiddishkeit [Yiddish for “Jewishness,” denoting here the sensibility and worldview of Eastern European Jews]? GBG: That was his expression of Yiddishkeit. It was Communitarianism. If I were to look at what Communitarianism is all about now, he was expressing it in his own way. It was really about the community. To some people, obviously, within the religious community, the schul served as the point of focus within the community. But here's a guy who was dealing with the community from a medical point of view. He really just cared about balancing the scales for the community. Because he saw rich and poor alike in his community. And there was a sense that his religious expression was his political expression. It was just getting involved in the community and taking care of everybody there and feeling that the disparity between great and small was something that, in his own small way, he could try to level by the way he treated the people in the community. MJ: So you find your way to him, or to that dimension of his life as a young man. Was that a really special connection? GBG: Yeah. Actually, I was very close with both of my grandfathers. On my mother's side, my grandfather on my mother's side was in the schmatta [garment] trade. He made women's sportswear. Again, he spent the better part of his early years as a traveling salesman for a company and then finally found a partner. And they built their own manufacturing facility here in the city. And, again, his religion was his work. He was not religiously motivated. The interesting thing about all of this -- and this is how I get in the back door -- his father was a schneider, was a tailor, from Russia. And he was alive until I was 14 years old. And because I was the first child of his favorite granddaughter -- so I was the first great-grandchild in that whole new generation of people -- he would call my mother up. From the time I was like eight years old, he would say, drop the bocher [lad] off for Shabbos [Sabbath]. And the only religious person in my whole family, the only memory of deeply religious stuff in my whole family -- my grandfathers were not religious. They never set foot in schul. I don't ever remember going to schul with them. But my great-grandfather, I remember being dropped off Friday afternoon, having Shabbos dinner with him, going to schul, coming home, going to schul in the morning. I often tell the story jokingly that as a child, being bored to tears Shabbat morning. He was a short little guy, but I wasn't a whole hell of a lot taller. I would hide under his tallis [prayer shawl]. And out of boredom, I would start to tie knots, which is a prohibited activity on Shabbos. And I would often say that I got religion because of every time he slapped me in the back of the head when I was doing that. You know, I would see stars. But I have a profound religious connection with my great-grandfather. The other very profound memory that I have is, while he was alive, this whole wide, disparate family of various cousins that, to this day, no longer really get along. But while he was alive, he pulled them together. And I remember Seders in the Bronx where it would pour out of his apartment, down the hallway, across the hall to our other various aunts and uncles who lived across the hall from him. And the table would just go across the hallway in the apartment building into the next thing. And I remember him sitting there, leading the service. And once, long after he died, we tried to resurrect that family Seder. It was a bust. It was not as powerful as when he was there. But he was my source of religious connection. My parents and my grandparents were not religious at all. MJ: OK, I want to kind finish filling out this portrait, getting us from the 1970s to today, just in a kind of thumbnail sketch. But I am curious about the relationship, then, between-- we've talked about your coming to consciousness in the political realm and also spirituality-- what is or what was the relationship of those two things when you were a very young man? GBG: I would say that they were completely related. Because I saw religion and politics as how one navigates the world around you. As I said, I was intellectually precocious. I read stuff that my parents weren't reading. I remember reading Karl Marx probably in seventh grade, eighth grade. I remember reading Plato's Republic. Interestingly enough, I had a history teacher, who long ago died. And it was a devastating thing because he was a very close friend. He got me through some very tough times. In seventh grade, I should say, my father had the second of two very serious heart attacks. And were it not for this particular history teacher and other people, I would have been really at wit's end. But at that time, I showed an interest in history, politics, things like that. And I remember him calling my mother and saying, I'd like him to read Plato's Republic. Is that OK? He was afraid that the homosexuality and things like that in Plato's Republic, for an impressionable seventh grader, was going to be devastating. But my mother said, I don't even know what he reads most of the time. Let him read whatever he wants. Early on, both my fascination with religion and politics were pretty fully formed. And I just felt like I had a responsibility to a wider world. And that's why when the Vietnam protests were going on -- I can't find it, but there's a picture of me at age 16 with long hair, wearing a big, floppy hippie/cowboy hat, as a moratorium march marshal on the March on Washington. With the armband and the whole bit. One of my first political campaigns is I campaigned for Shirley Chisholm -- a black woman from the South. MJ: What was that like? GBG: I just thought she was fascinating on so many levels. First of all, here was a black woman from the South, with a distinct accent. She usually talked like that. She had a really interesting accent. But she talked about the responsibility of, again, dealing with the poor, dealing with -- kind of leveling the playing field. And I just felt that there was such a spectrum of people and a stratification of people. It was both right to left in America. And it was vertical. With people in power, who had money, sending off to war people who didn't have money, for the most part. I mean, I was aware that even if I got an unbelievably low draft number, as a person of quote, unquote privilege, I could have gotten out of it. And that was so apparent. I was watching, and I knew the people who were going off to war. They were the people who we knew back in Yonkers, who never could escape Yonkers. Even though I still lived in Yonkers. And it wasn't until much later that my parents moved to a wealthier community of New Rochelle. It was the year that I graduated high school when they finally moved. MJ: They moved to New Rochelle. GBG: They moved to New Rochelle. But my best friend had an apartment in the city that he had to keep because his aunt had vacated it. And she was one of the original co-op owners. So they wanted to keep it in the family. So my senior year in high school, he and I basically lived in that apartment. So I never actually made the transition to New Rochelle. But I also knew that there were people in Yonkers who were not as privileged as we were. And these were the people who were getting drafted because they didn't have money. And all that kind of bothered me. So I would say, that's when I got deeply involved in religion, even though it was within the Reform Jewish setting. That's also when I got very involved in politics and later on supported Barbara Jordan when she was doing her run. This was all in the early '70s. And I just felt like America needed a whole different change from -- remember, The Beatles wrote the song “Fool on the Hill” about Richard Nixon. He was the fool on the hill. So we lost all confidence in government. We lost all confidence in the people who were quote, unquote supposed to be in charge. And that was my spiritual and intellectual awakening to politics -- the protests of Martin Luther King, the folks in the South, Chaney and Schwerner. There were three guys who went down South -- two of them were Jews -- to protest what was going on. And we were aware of this stuff. This was what you should be doing. That's why I did all these protest rallies. It was fun. But more than anything, it was the only way to express this outrage at here were people that we were looking at who destroyed what we thought government should be about. And I've always been moved by the notion that government has to be judged by how it deals with the least among us -- any government. I don't care what it is. I use that as a barometer for what's going on in Israel, what's going on here today, what's going on in anybody's political writings. Answer this one profound question -- how does government deal with the least among you? And then I'll tell you what I think about it. And what I was always profoundly moved by was all of my studies of Judaism, the least among us was always of profound value. And that's why I was really swayed by the religious texts that I was reading. MJ: So at what point did it become apparent to you to that you were going to take the track that you ended up taking? You're a rabbi now. When was the first time that idea occurred to you? GBG: It is a very hard thing to answer, because all of my friends-- also, this was the time of rock and roll. I was a guitar player. I had lots of rock and roll bands. I was out there. I was good. There was even a time for a while that I thought that I was going to pursue it professionally. And in high school there was a joke for a while, at the time, again, early '70s was the beginning of jazz fusion. And one of the major people at the forefront was John McLaughlin, who started to become a follower of Sri Chinmoy. Again, I was aware of what was going on in the wider religious scene and could read that stuff. And Hinduism, Hare Krishna -- all these things were out there. And I was reading all this stuff. And then he became Mahavishnu John McLaughlin. And he was John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. For a while, there was a joke that the real name of my high-school rock and roll band was Rabbi Gary and the Ma Nishtane Orchestra [Ma Nishtanah refers to the Four Questions of the Passover seder. But that's what my friends talked about. I never thought that I was actually going to become a Rabbi. They knew that I cared about reading this stuff. I was reading Buber. I and Thou was really big. It was big on college campuses as kind of the sex manual. You want to experience God? Let's have sex. Because when two people are together in this passionate embrace, God exists there, too. So people were reading Buber for, sometimes, the wrong reasons. I was profoundly moved by Buber in terms of the life of a relationship with other people. Often Buber describes how we operate in the world as in an I-it experience. Basically, we remove the humanity because a person becomes a function of our needs. When I see the person at a checkout counter in the Safeway or in Pathmark, I don't really care what's going on in their life. I want them to accurately record what it is I'm buying and give me proper change when I give them money. So they're an “it.” So Buber was a big part of my reading. So they would joke about this notion of Rabbi Gary and the Ma Nishtanah Orchestra. I went off to Sarah Lawrence-- by the way, I should say, Horace Mann, at the time when I grew up was an all-boys school, which is a part of this wider story, this very complex autobiography. When I was becoming more religiously aware, I was still part of a Reform synagogue. This was post-Bar Mitzvah. I made a commitment to continue studying through confirmation class, through 10th grade, in the weekly religious group on Sunday mornings. But I was the kid who sat in the back reading The New York Times. I was bored to tears. Because they weren't talking about things that I cared about. They were talking about what holiday was coming up and stuff that really didn't move me at all. The rabbi got very frustrated with me and said, what is it you want to learn? And I think that this was probably around eighth grade when he approached me. I said, I want to learn philosophy. I didn't really know what philosophy was, but I figured it was going to help answer some of my questions. So this is now 1970, '71. So the following week, a guy drives up to the synagogue on Sunday morning with long, flowing black hair, in a yellow VW convertible, chain-smoking cigarettes. He walks in and he says, I'm your new teacher. We're in eighth grade. And his name was Dr. Robert Zimmerman. Not Bob Dylan. But Dr. Robert, Bob, Bob Zimmerman. And he sits down and puts an ashtray on the table. And here we are, wide-eyed eighth graders. And he says, there was a guy by the name of Descartes who said, "I think, therefore I am." What do you think that means? And I was smitten. This guy became my guru. And he ended up teaching there for two years. And that's where I really learned Buber. And we would read Heschel. And we read Descartes. We read Spinoza. We read, really, all sorts of interesting, fascinating stuff. And, by the way, he liked rock and roll. So he would occasionally come and see my rock and roll band. Turns out he was a philosophy professor at Sarah Lawrence College. And in the last year he was there, which was tenth grade, when we were confirmed, he said to me, when it's time for you to think about college -- I don't know where you are planning on going, it's still really too early for you to decide. But I hope that you'll come and visit me at Sarah Lawrence. Because it's the kind of place you would really appreciate. Because you have that kind of mind. I was going to an all-boys school. The idea of going to an all-girls school was kind of seductive. And Sarah Lawrence had just opened up its walls to men around that time. So I looked at all the places -- I went to Union College. I went to Colgate. I went to Hamilton. I was looking for a small school. Because I was the kind of guy who didn't want to sit in a lecture. I wanted to sit and study with people. I go up to Sarah Lawrence and, again, boom, I'm there. That's where I want to go. So I ended up going to college from 1974 to '78 at Sarah Lawrence. I took every course Bob Zimmerman took. I studied Kant. And I studied Hegel with him. You name it. Anything he taught, I was his follower. But I was also taking comparative religion courses with two people who I adored. And studied everything from Buddhism to Taoism to Christian spiritualism to Judaism. Every time I studied another religion, I found it fascinating. But every time I studied about Judiasm, I felt like I was home. And again, I had four majors at Sarah Lawrence. I was a philosophy major. I was a comparative religion major. I was a music major. Because I was still playing music and learning composition and conducting and all sorts of stuff like that. And I was a theater major. Because my other passion was theater -- both acting and directing and technical stuff. And I did all four. Actually, upon graduation, I still didn't know what I was really going to do. Although I began to think about maybe I wanted to go to the rabbinate. But at that time, upon graduation, Sarah Lawrence offered me a teaching position in the theater department as the head of technical theater, directing, teaching, lighting design, set design, running the whole theater facility, all that. So I did it. I took that job. Marianne, my wife, who I met the first day of second year and married the day after we graduated -- because her mother said she would only come for a wedding or a graduation but not both. So we said, OK, we'll do it the same weekend. Lunacy. So I took the job and proceeded to do some outside designing work. And I was working off-Broadway. I was working on a show. This is now 1978 turning to 1979. And the show was an offshoot of some of the stuff we were doing at Sarah Lawrence. It was called “Song Night in the City.” I designed the set. I designed the lights. I was in charge of running the show technically. We were working at Westbeth. We had rented the large space at Westbeth to do a three-month run of the show. And the night before opening night, I brought a television in with me. I plugged it in, and I put it on the corner of the stage. Everybody's running around saying, what the hell are you doing? What do you have a television here for? And I said, this is the signing of the Camp David Accords. This is history. Theater is fake. This is real. I've got to watch this. And people were saying, no, no, tomorrow night is real. This is unimportant. If there was an epiphany that I had, it was that as much as I loved what I was doing -- and I did -- my heart was elsewhere. My technical abilities allowed me to be successful in this area. And I was passionate about what I did. But I wasn't really passionate. Because life kept on going. And that's when it hit me that every time I went to a theater party -- because our whole life was involved with theater -- people would talk about who was working on a successful show, who was making it, who wasn't making it. If they weren't making it, then you wouldn't want to talk to them because maybe they would jinx you. You'd say Murray Schisgal. And they'd talk about what he was writing. And they'd talk about what the most recent production they had seen of his work. But then you'd say, Lebanon. And they'd say, well, what did he write? And you'd kind of, no, no, no, no. Lebanon's a place. It was at that moment that I really said, you know what, in the back of my mind I think I've been heading in this direction. So I made application to rabbinical school. And got in. The show eventually closed. MJ: I'm curious, though-- we've talked about the relationship between politics and spirituality. What about the relationship between the theatricality that you were involved in and liturgy? Is that a connection that is a kind of through line through all of this? GBG: Ritual is theater. Ritual is theater. That's what it's all about. The sacrifices that we read about in the Bible was grand opera. To me, opera is the highest of the theatrical art forms. Because for opera be good -- there's a lot of bad opera. And I'm a huge opera fan. I've seen more bad opera than I've seen good opera. Bad opera, for me, is when one of the critical elements is not up to par. But when opera works, meaning: the music is terrific, the singing is terrific, the acting is terrific, the costumes are right, the set is right, the lighting is right, the ambiance is right. When that comes together, that's magic, OK? Again, if something goes wrong -- if you have great singing, but the person who's singing is supposed to be playing a 16-year-old little ingenue and she's 350 pounds and waddles across the stage, there's a disconnect there. And story falls apart. Madame Butterfly being sung by a 300-pound diva is not Madame Butterfly. Turandot. If Calaf, the great prince, kneels down and needs three guys to help him get up on his feet, he's not the kind of handsome prince. It just falls apart. So ritual in religion is the same thing to me. You read about the sacrifices. What was compelling? That was magic. That was their entertainment. There had to be smoke. There had to be incense. There had to be drama. There had to be music. The psalms that we read were the original text of the background music of the sacrifices. That's great religious ritual. When I think about what I do today, I'm worried about, what are people looking at? What are people saying? What are they hearing? What is the ambiance of the room? Ritual either works or it falls apart because it is only the sum of its parts. And when I was actively involved in theater, it's a community experience. It only works if everybody's engaged. John Cage, a great composer of aleatoric music -- aleatoric music is chance music, there were a whole bunch of people-- Cage actually composed some pieces flipping a coin. A short note is heads. A long note is tails. Whatever it was, it was completely random. And then, pitch -- up was heads. Tails was down, so he would compose it. That was one form of aleatoric music. There was one piece that he composed where it was some guy standing on a street corner. There's no audience for that. No matter what it is, it wasn't a piece of music. Because it goes back to George Bishop Berkeley's great philosophical conundrum. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody's there to hear it, does it make a sound? To me, you need ears in order to know that there was a sound made. The tree may have fallen. But sound is as much perception as it is affect. So all of that is one of a piece. That's the way I looked at the world. That's the way I looked at religion. And I could be moved by a great theatrical production. I could be moved by great opera. And I could be moved by great prayer when it's done right. And all too often throughout my early years, I saw it done wrong. I saw bad opera. I saw bad theater. And I saw bad liturgy. And I just thought, if it's going to work, I want to be involved in all aspects of it. And I care about it. If I could rip the seats out of Park Avenue Christian Church, where we pray as a community, as TUJ, that would be the first thing I'd do so that I could put chairs where people could face each other. To me, you don't want to see the person in front of you's back of their head. You want to be moved by the fact that other people are being moved. And you want to be able to witness it and see it and watch it happen and be part of that. That's part of the community experience of prayer. I mean, we certainly went all over the freaking map on that one. MJ: We've gotten you to adulthood. We've gotten you to the rabbinate. Let's fast-foward to more recent history. I've been speaking to people all over the country, all different sorts of people, about this peculiar moment we're in, in American history. There does seem to be a broad consensus that this is an extraordinary moment, an exceptional moment. Although, there maybe isn't so much of a consensus on what's important about it, what's peculiar about it, what's significant, what's unsettling. Some people are soothed by Obama's presence. Some people are unsettled by it. There's a lot of rancor and tension. When I say the phrase "our current moment" to you, how does that resonate? What do you think it means? What's important about this moment that we're in? GBG: Well, this moment, it's hard for me to put my finger on it when we're talking about this moment. If we're talking about the Obama presidency, that's a moment. If you're talking about my awareness as an adult, that's a larger moment. What I've lived through -- this is part of a process. Because I see it as part of process. What I'm talking about when I talk about communities and when I look at history, as a historian, as I am, as well, there are moments in time where something happens which marks a sea change. But the sea change takes much longer to really trickle down and make its impact felt, or its impress felt. And so how do you define the moment -- when the sea change begins or when it actually takes effect? For example, go back to the '60s. There was a sea change on two different levels here in the United States, which made its impact wider. One was the Civil Rights Movement itself. The fact that in the early '60s, in the period of our formation -- your formation, my formation -- we began to be cognisant of the stratification of the world in which we lived. And some of us were profoundly impacted by it. Some of us were kind of, completely, [it was of] no moment because it didn't make an impress on their life. I certainly know a lot of people who couldn't have really cared less other than it was something to watch on the evening news. On the other hand, there were some people who were profoundly moved by that. So you have the early struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. And I'm not just talking about Martin Luther King, but I'm talking about a lot of the people. Again, with the stratification there's a spectrum. There was everybody from, not just Martin Luther King, but Huey [Newton] and the Black Panther movement. Where do you mark the midpoint of the spectrum of the Civil Rights Movement? But it's clear that there was unrest. And some people felt Gandhi-esque that you're going to tolerate it -- or not tolerate it. But you're not going to really resist, except passively, to those like the Black Panthers. Those of us involved in the Vietnam War protests were profoundly moved by them. You know, let's Mau Mau America. Let's blow this sucker up. Jerry Rubin -- steal this book. All of that stuff. So where did you fit in that? But there was a moment that began it. Here we are, 30 years out, almost 40 years out. Did it change? On the one hand, there were changes. Was the goal realized? The answer to that question is no. And Obama becomes a very profound example of that. Because even though we were able to get to a point where a person who's identified as a black man gets elected to the highest office in our country, have we eradicated the disparity and stratification that blacks in general feel? And has that made any impress felt 40 years out? No, it hasn't. And it will take a whole long time. Now the second-- I talked about two major movements. The second movement was the women's movement that we were all impacted by. We began to become profoundly aware of the stratification in society between men and women. I did. I went to an all-boys school. I went to an elitist school. Women were, from the time I was in seventh grade to the time I graduated, for the most part, they were useful only for sexual fun and social interchange. But were they our intellectual equals? At Horace Mann, nobody would ever have said that. We were in a segregated environment because we were the ones who were going to take over the planet. And we were told that over and over again by our professors. At Horace Mann, it was very much a British prep school, so these were our professors. It was very structured, very regimented. Though when I went to Horace Mann originally, we had hair and dress requirements, when I graduated, I had a ponytail down my back and graduated, went to graduation in a t-shirt and jeans. That was, again, part of the time. But the other part of it was the women's movement. So we began to see that women were more than just sexual objects. They made contributions. I go off to Sarah Lawrence. I become a feminist. I become a subscriber to Ms. Magazine. I hyphenate my last name in 1978 when I get married. Because I didn't like the idea when we got married we retained separate identities. We were married. I didn't like the idea that we would just take our two names and smoosh them together in some kind of amalgam. Because that would deny our past. So I was trying to figure out a way, even though there were some intellectual challenges. My wife's last name was her father's last name. But still, we wanted to say, this is her identity. This is our identity. We're going to merge these identities in some way that still retains an essence of who we were but creates something new. Women have certainly risen in society. But hell, when Hillary was running for president, the word that you heard most often when you talked to people, that was uttered sometimes under the table or sometimes right out in the open, was bitch. She was a bitch. If a man had those personality traits, he would have been a strong man, a powerful man who asserts himself, who says what's on his mind. She was just a bitch. So again, back in the '60s, we're fighting for women's rights. Have we attained them? No. So we're in this moment. Again, it's a pregnant moment. It is a moment that maybe we are beginning to see the tide potentially flipping. But yet, we have a Secretary of State who's a woman. We have a President who's a black man. And has that changed what's going out on the street on 42nd Street today? The answer is no. It really hasn't. So I'm living in a moment of, again, profound opportunity but unrealized. MJ: Are you optimistic right now? GBG: I'm more optimistic than I was in 1972. MJ: I was thinking about that when you were talking about working for the Chisolm campaign. Can you just put those moments side by side -- the Shirley Chisholm moment and the Obama moment? GBG: Yeah, because when I was working for it, I knew that there wasn't a chance in hell she was ever going to get it. But I wanted people to know that she was a candidate. That she was a reasonable candidate. In the large sense, I wanted to shake people's thinking up. My parents thought I was out of my fucking mind. What are you doing, going out there, handing out flyers for Shirley Chisholm? She can't even speak properly, they would say. Why are you wasting your time? So then it was a hopeless cause that I felt still needed to be raised. Now it's not a hopeless cause. That's why I'm saying we're at this, it's a pregnant moment. But the question is, is the child going to be stillborn, or is the child going to be born alive? And I'm not sure. So I'm far more optimistic now than I was then. Frankly, I was a Hillary supporter until the day that Obama got elected. I still wanted her to win. I still think that she probably would have made a better president, just for what she stands for and her political acumen. I still think that Obama is -- I think he's got great advisors. I think he's got great skill sets. But I think he's, I wish he were a little older and a little bit more than having been a junior senator for a term. Because, as he's quickly discovering, which he should have known, probably does know and probably confronts every day, there's a machine in Washington. And it takes a whole lot more than just goodwill to try and shift the machine. MJ: Have you been surprised by anything that we've seen in past year in terms of the resistance to his leadership, both within the chambers of power but also just the country at large? GBG: Surprised? No. I don't think I've been surprised. I think I've been profoundly disappointed that the country still has selective memory and, in fact, faulty memory. I feel profoundly saddened that the guy who's currently occupying the office has been saddled with the current situation that we're in, which really is the legacy of eight years of what I believe was an absolutely corrupt political leadership. Do I believe that George W. Bush himself was corrupt? I think that he was just an idiot. I think that he was a fool. But he was also weak enough to be surrounded by people who he gave carte blanche to. The banking industry -- the minute you allowed investment operations to become banks, you knew that all hell was going to break loose. There's absolutely-- I would commend to you, if you didn't read it, what I thought was one of those brilliant assessments of where we are, was by Calvin Trillin about five months ago, four months ago. It was a New York Times op-ed piece. If you Google Calvin Trillin and stock market and New York Times, you'll get the article. He basically tells the story that he's a guy in his late 60s or early 70s. He walks into a bar. And everybody's looking morose because of what's going on economically, especially those of his age, who see their whole retirement fund disappearing before their eyes, if not completely gone. He sees a guy of his age sitting at the bar. Are you familiar with this? MJ: No. GBG: OK. He sees a guy sitting at the bar, looking really kind of content. Trillin sidles up to him and says, how, in this environment of our age, could you possibly look as peaceful as you are right now? Because you're probably right around retirement. And all your money must be gone. The guy says, no, I got all my money out of the stock market a while ago, about 10 years ago. Trillin says, why did you do that? He says, I knew that I had to get out of the market when the smart guys took over. Trillin says, I don't understand. He says, look, you and I are the same age. When we went to high school, there were three categories of people. There was the top third, the middle third and the bottom third. Top third of our class all went out and became scientists, major researchers, professors at universities. These were the smart guys. They were going to go somewhere. The middle group became the lawyers. They strove for some kind of intellectual gratification, so they became the lawyers. They went on to medical school. They're the family practitioners. They're OK. The bottom third became insurance salesmen, stock brokers, car salesmen, people that you go and talk to, that you develop trust for. In those days, you went to a stock broker and he said, I want to sell you a piece of a company. Here's the company. And you knew you were buying a piece of a company. Did you believe that IBM was going to do well this year? You bought IBM. Did you believe that Procter & Gamble was going to come up with a new toothpaste? You bought Procter & Gamble. And the guy who was selling it to you could explain to you -- because he wasn't that smart, but it wasn't that hard -- exactly what you were buying and what you were investing in. And you went with him because you trusted him, you liked him. And you figured he did the research. It made sense. But he said that as soon as the smart guys went into the stock market, that's when I got out. Because it was smart guys who figured, there's got to be a new way to make a buck. Then I don't understand anymore. I don't understand what a derivative is. I don't understand how you can collateralize a mortgage and split it up into little pieces and sell off little pieces of a mortgage and earn money. I don't understand what IBM does anymore because they don't make business machines. So the minute I figured the smart guys went in, I was out. Because once I didn't understand it anymore, they weren't messing with my money. And it's emblematic of the Bush administration. Because that happened under that watch that you get collateralized mortgage debt obligations. I sleep with a woman who works as a lawyer in the securities industry. I have asked her over and over again to explain what the fuck that is. And I don't understand it. I don't get it. She's involved in all of these -- Enron affair, IPOs, all this stuff. You know what? I don't get it. I don't get it. And that happened on that watch, where everything became so politicized and so serpentine that I lost, again, all confidence. And so here's a guy, Obama, that I want to have confidence in. He seems to be a straight shooter. He seems to be a guy aware of what it took to claw his way into where he is. He certainly walked the streets of Chicago. Even in his short political career, my guess is that he was moved by the stratification that he saw. And it seems to me that the guy came in and inherited a bigger mess than anybody ever could have predicted. Because all of it happened right around the time we elected this guy. Lehman Brothers collapsed on the 15th of September. How do I know that? Because on the night of the 14th of September, I ran a major fund-raising event where my wife had to walk out crying because she received, on her BlackBerry, news that the next day, that's what was going to happen. I remember it. Last time I was able to raise money easily. MJ: Yeah. Let's talk about those dimensions of the economic collapse. I'm interested in two different angles of vision on this. One is your role as a fund-raiser and how the world has looked over the last 18 months from this desk. The other, the very first thing you said when we started was, I'm a New Yorker and proud of it. I'm really interested in the life of the city over this last year, as you see it. What does the city look like to you? GBG: Let's go to the first question about fund-raising in general. Philanthropy, in general, has changed dramatically over the years. And I'm going to say that because it will put into perspective what we're dealing with right now. I want to go back to my grandfather that I talked about, the Communist, the Bundist. One thing that I learned from him, which was really profound, was, regardless of the fact that he was not actively involved in the Jewish community at all, he told me that the first check he wrote every month was to the Jewish Federation. He just felt he needed to take care of his people. Then he would pay his rent. He would pay his bills. The first check he wrote every month was a check to take care of the community. And in those days, he sent the check to the Federation. In those days it was the UJA, United Jewish Appeal, Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. It's gone through so many iterations of names. It doesn't make a difference. In his day, he felt that there were people far smarter than him who knew where that money would best go. And in the '50s and the '60s and the '70s, for the most part, philanthropy was run by several large -- whether it was United Way or Red Cross. You wrote a check. You figured these are the people who knew what they were doing. You wanted to support them. They would make sure that your money was being spent reasonably. In the '80s we began to see a shift in philanthropy away from trust in these large philanthropic funds towards directed donations. People were no longer saying, I'm going to give to the Red Cross. I'm going to give to the Red Cross because I want them to do x, y and z. They were sending checks to the Federation, I want to support the Soviet Jews. I want to support Israel. The next round of directed donation was the creation -- and again, because of the tax structure, because of what was going on financially in the last 10 years, tax benefits that were given for this -- we begin to see the growth of private foundations, many of them run by families. Again, there was no longer a sense in trust in the wider community to decide where your money was going. But if you had a kid who had diabetes and you had money in your family, your family foundation would support diabetes research. The downside to that is what they would probably do is if they lived in suburban New Jersey, it meant that they would buy a wing on their local hospital, dedicate it to diabetes treatment. Lovely for the local community. But if you were to ask yourself, or if you worked in the diabetes community, where would this money make the greatest impact, it could have been a particular research facility. It could have been a particular work on a drug. They wanted to say, we want to support diabetes, and we want to see its local impact without taking a step back and asking, how can we really help? That has impacted on the Jewish community, again. I have people who say, I want to support this particular community in the former Soviet Union. Now, that particular community may be actually doing OK. But there's a community the next one over that really needs help. But because they don't know about it, they're writing the check to the one that I've got to send the money to. So already, we're living in a very different philanthropic world than the one my grandfather inhabited. So we have seen this major shift towards private foundations, private federations, private giving circles, individuals who want to direct their donations. They don't trust the larger organization. They don't want to pay infrastructure costs. They don't want to support the infrastructure. They want to only support what it is they care about. It becomes a kind of narcissistic philanthropy. It really is. I hate to say it. There's a level of narcissism involved, which really has permeated the philanthropic world. So before the collapses last year, there were still people who were generous, who could support the wider community. And there were people who still were not that involved and still wrote a check to the local federation. And we could then turn to the local federation and say, Chicago, would you help us with this particular project? And they would say, OK, we've raised $20 million. We'll give you $100,000 for that. Because you guys can do it. And we can tell our donors that we're supporting this particular thing that's going on over there in former Soviet Union or Israel or South Africa -- wherever it is you're working. So from the collapse last year to now, 2009 was the worst year in the world. I began 2009 with a $500,000 deficit. Why? Because the Jewish Agency for Israel, JAFI, which supports a lot of our programming, especially in the former Soviet Union, in 2008 had made a budget commitment to us for $1.1 million for all the things that we were doing. We have particular things. Operating on that principle, we ran a camp program for 1,100 kids. We did this. We did that. We spent the money. On December 28 of 2008, instead of receiving a check for $1.1 million, we received a check for $600,000, saying, our campaign did not do as well as we expected. Because people gave us $10,000 instead of $20,000. They gave us whatever it is. So we're passing that loss on to you. So we're not fulfilling our commitment to you. I started minus $500,000, January 1, 2009. We had to scale back. But there comes a point at which, when you scale back your programs, you stop being who you're supposed to be. So we tried to scale back our expenses as much as we could without giving up what we were doing. But to raise funds now -- number one, almost every fund that I was able to get was directed, meaning my infrastructure costs drove me crazy. How was I going to make payroll? How was I going to pay rent? How was I going to pay the electric bill in here and in Jerusalem? That meant going to donors and saying, we instituted a larger administrative fee policy in order to do that. Because we were getting killed by directed donations. Now I will charge 15% of whatever donation just to recover some— MJ: For operations. GBG: For operational expenses. Or 10% if it's something that I wasn't involved in. I didn't want to go that route. But I had no choice because I had to figure out a way to support the infrastructure. And people object to it. They say, I want this donation to go without any infrastructure costs. It makes it really hard for me. Again, it is narcissistic philanthropy. Because it's, I want you to do what I want you to do, not what needs to be done. And it's a very tough environment. I had a -- obviously I won't give you the name -- huge real-estate mogul, good for $50,000 a year. And we were one of his low-priority -- I mean, he gave to others. I called him a couple months back to say, are you going to be able to support us the way you always have? I have you down for $50,000. He said, as soon as the collapse occurred, my broker came to me. He said, get everything out of the stock market and put it into three-year bonds. Protect it because you don't know what's going to happen. Three years from now, things will stabilize. One way or another, we'll be able to rethink our investments. But let's just take all the money off the table, put it all in bonds. MJ: Which essentially freezes it, right? GBG: It freezes the money. Completely frozen, OK? The guy says to me, for the first time in my life, I had to write a loan application. Because I have no access to my money. I had to write a loan application to send my daughter to college. This family has never had to borrow money to send anybody to school. But he said, I can't touch my money. It's locked off. So I can't give you any. And I'm applying for loans because I have no other way to send her to school. Philanthropy has changed. Raising money has changed. And it's just harder to get that dollar. Number one, it's harder to get the dollar in general. Number two, if they give it to you, because of the level of narcissism and involvement in a lot of this, it goes to where they want it to go and not necessarily where you want it to go. MJ: Is that driven in part by the information technologies that make it easier for people to keep their finger on the pulse? GBG: I think that's part of it. MJ: It sounds like a kind of counterpart to day trading in a certain way. GBG: It is. It is day trading. And I think that there is definitely that aspect. I mean, again, when my grandfather wrote a check, he expected an annual report -- what did you guys do at the end of the year? When I get somebody who gives me a check, they call me a week later and say, did the money get there? What did they do with it? They go online or they can pick up the phone and Skype. It's a free phone call to call FSU if somebody's got a computer there. So, yeah, I think a large part of it is also we're in a performance-driven economy where everybody wants to see the direct impact or direct results. MJ: Over the course of 2009, was this organization able to develop new strategies for dealing with this climate? How has that gone? GBG: What I have said over and over again is while everybody was caught short when 2009 really hit and had to, number one, reassess their mission statement, reassess how they were doing business. As I said, they just hemorrhaged 80 employees upstairs. Because with the money that was coming in, they could not support -- they spent the entire 2009 doing a restructure. They used to have regional offices. Now they've gotten rid of all the regional offices. They've had to close them down. They gave up the real estate, all sorts of things like that. Luckily we were poised, because we did have a small staff and because we were driven by particular projects, that I was able to say, number one, we've fulfilled all of our commitments that we made at the beginning of 2009. Number two, while everybody else was running around rethinking their mission statement and their structure, we didn't have to do that. We just did our work. We had built into the budget the notion of downsizing. We had contingencies ready to go into place. So we never spent any time really worrying about, will we be able to do what we're going to do? We knew we had to raise the money to do it, but we were going to be able to do it. And we ended up with a budget surplus, which we're using to retire historic legacy debts that were built up from years in the past. So I'm starting out this year being able to pay bills, as opposed to starting out saying, how am I going to make up $500,000 so I can just start my year? So we're lucky. MJ: OK, now getting to the second part of that initial question, the life of the city -- how do you see the city of New York affected? I mean, in a certain sense, in Manhattan, when you talk about this moment, the near horizon is the economic collapse. But always, not so far off that horizon is the kind of post-9/11-ness of this moment. As a proud New Yorker, as you put it, I mean, how does the life of the city strike you? GBG: Well, I guess one of the profound moments that I remember was during the Koch administration. This was when I was, you know, already a rabbi out there. I was a founding chair of an organization, which still exists. It's substantially different than when we founded it, but it was called the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing. It started in the early '80s when the homeless crisis really hit. I knew it profoundly because Hebrew Union College, where I was going through rabbinical school, had moved downtown to Broadway and West 4th Street, and I was living in Brooklyn and got off at the Broadway & LaFayette station, and during the winter I would literally have to step over bodies, of people sleeping-- MJ: On grates. GBG: --on the subway grates. My senior sermon was about what Judaism teaches about our responsibility for the least among society. I got involved because my work, my background was in comparative religion. I did a lot of work with the Christian community in those early years, dealing with the homeless crisis. And every Friday morning at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, there was a meeting of religious and community leaders coming together to say, how can we deal with what's going on? Because the city was not responding. Koch was not responding. I remember walking into Koch's office with a couple of ministers and a couple of community workers and saying, this situation is so horrific. There needs to be a political response. And I remember him saying, well, I can't do this because this particular law says I've got to do this. This particular thing says this. This particular budget allows me to do this. And he was citing chapter and verse. And I finally got in his face. And I said, I don't give a damn about the law. These are human beings who are on the street. And we've got to do something about it. We've got to respond. That's when he went to Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and said, from the pulpit -- I was not at Stephen Wise at the time, Balfour Brickner was there. I was still ending my career at HUC. I was finishing rabbinical school at the time. So this is interesting. He said, why aren't the churches and the synagogues opening their doors for the homeless? The following month is when Stephen Wise started their shelter program, where five nights out of the week, they would shelter. They couldn't do it on the weekend. But five nights out of the week, they would shelter. A number of churches began to do it. Cathedral of Saint John the Divine was doing it. A number of other places were doing it. I was the president of the student body of the rabbinical school at the time. And that's when I preached my sermon. I actually, it was part a dramatic sermon. Because I started my, the Biblical portion was about how we treat the leper in the community. The leper in the Biblical text is supposed to be sent outside the city. So I start the sermon as if I'm one of the members of the tribes of Israel who discovers that they have leprosy and is being told by the priests to get out. And then I talk about the way Judaism deals with the least among society. And I end becoming one of the guys who would offer to clean your windshield at a traffic light. Because that was the way, the Koch administration said, give them Windex bottles and towels. Let them earn their own keep. So I went to the administration at the school and I said, we're not set up to be able to do a shelter here. But can we do a food pantry? Can we do a weekly food program? And I remember the president of the school at that time said, we can't do that. We have too many treasures of art. We have our Torah scrolls. We have an institution to run. No, you can't do it. Interestingly enough, last year, I was invited back to the 20th anniversary of the soup kitchen. It took five more years after I left there for them to do it. But the dean of the school remembered it was my sermon that got the ball rolling and asked me to come back and preach a sermon about that. So my awareness of the city really took hold -- especially with the politics of the city -- really took hold in the early '80s when I was really deeply involved. And we would do protests in City Hall Park. We would camp out in City Hall Park. Every year, in June, around the budget, we would ask for more money for ANHD, for housing development, all sorts of stuff like that -- bricks-and-mortar things that we were looking for. Then I became involved in national and international things. And I kind of withdrew from local politics because my professional life took on a more global outlook. But I still lived in the city, and I still was involved. Then when I went back Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, we still had the shelter going. We still had a food program going. I was actively involved. I would volunteer during the winter. Generally once every two weeks, I'd sleep over in the shelter myself. I brought my kids to do it with me. We hung out with the guys. I would be there Shabbat morning before I did Torah study to hand out bags of food, which we would do. So I really, again, got reacquainted with all of that and the organization. And then here we are in this economic crisis. And TUJ's food program this past weekend, they served 190 people— MJ: Wow. GBG: --many of whom were just recently unemployed. MJ: That's about double from what it was about a year and a half ago. GBG: Exactly. Exactly. 190 people. It's just unbelievable. So I'm a proud New Yorker. I think that, certainly, the current administration, the Bloomberg administration, is a little bit more responsive to the needs of the homeless. But there's so much more that we could be doing. You know, the fact of the matter is, I hate to sound like a broken record, but I said this in Koch's office. There are so many abandoned apartment buildings in the south Bronx that, with a little bit of money, could be converted into some kind of transitional housing if you only did it. You can still drive up the Major Deagan and still see -- Giuliani's big contribution was, instead of having blown-out windows in those apartment buildings, they would put pieces of paper. And they would draw pictures of a window. MJ: Draw, right. GBG: That was really good. Guiliani -- I mean, I detested the man. I detest the man today. I just felt he was heartless, and especially dealing with the homeless. Bloomberg, I think, is not heartless. But the tussle between federal funds, state funds, and local funds -- I think that there's a will there. There's probably a personal stake that he could probably put in that I'd like to see happen. But I hate to say it because I think somebody might become complacent, but we're doing a whole lot better. The city is more responsive and more aware than we were back in the '80s. You know, Giuliani's solution was give them money and stick them on a bus and send them to Florida. I don't think that we're doing that. But I think that there certainly could be -- you know, I'd love to see, I was involved, you can Google this if you want. I was the person who said that workfare was slavery, was enforced slavery. I had this running debate with the late William Buckley. Again, you can go online and see it. Because when Giuliani came up with the workfare proposal and the initial workfare projects, what they would do is they would bring people into the department of sanitation and hand them a broom but wouldn't give them a warm jacket to wear, wouldn't allow them to use the bathroom facilities. If somebody called in the morning and said, listen, my kid is sick, I've got to stay at home, they would be kicked out of the program if they didn't show up. I just felt that that was akin to slavery. That was not humane in any way. And I called them on it. There was a whole big row in the press -- rabbi is calling workfare slavery. But it was. It was. They weren't training people to go out and do something useful. They were handing them a broom and saying, go sweep the street. And pay them sub-par wages. They weren't even getting minimum wage for it. And they certainly weren't getting proper equipment, proper facilities to do what it was they were being asked to do. I was disgusted with it. So I think we're a little bit ahead of where we were. And I certainly think that we're living in a time where churches and synagogues take as their primary responsibility. Again, back in the '80s, you know that the only organization, when I started to work with this, the only reasonable organization was the East Harlem Interfaith Council. There was a wonderful, wonderful minister by the name of Norman Eddy. I don't even know if Norman is alive. I hope he still is because the man is a saint. The only thing that he could do was he would go out from door to door to collect money to give to people who lived in buildings whose oil or gas heat was cut off because the landlords didn't pay for heat during the winter. That was one of the only interfaith agencies that was out there really doing anything for people who were homeless or near homeless. He was collecting money just to pay gas bills and heating bills. This was 1980, '81, '82. And he was like the lone guy. I was looking for somebody, someplace that was doing it. That's why we started the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing. There was no religious voice dealing with this. And there had to be. So, you know, I am proud to be a New Yorker. I am proud of who we are. I think that the city does a whole lot better than other places. There's a whole lot more that we can do. But I just love the city. And you know, our finest moment was in the moments immediately after 9/11. We lost touch with it. Unfortunately it is a crisis that brings us together and reminds us of who we are fundamentally. But, boy, 9/11 was a lesson of what we could and should be. You know, those early weeks -- it was remarkable. So this is where I talk about the disparity between the concept and the result. The Civil Rights Movement -- that was the concept. The result is we can elect a president who's black. But we still haven't permeated. What happened on 9/11 is we could come together. We could pull together as a city. The result is we're a little bit friendlier now that we were pre-9/11. But it hasn't completely taken hold. We're a little bit better off than we were. We're reminded that we could be every once in a while, in our saner moments. But now we fight MTA budget cuts, everything else. And we get cranky again. MJ: Well, you've been very generous with your time. Is there anything that you feel like we should have talked about that we didn't? GBG: I mean, the only other thing that I would say that bears some discussion -- and maybe even a discussion starter is all it needs -- is that in the '60s was when we lost faith in government -- we as a people. I certainly did. Again, The Beatles' “Fool on the Hill.” What were we protesting? We were protesting the government. The government was the other. It wasn't us anymore. And with all of the scandals, one after another, reported in the press, whether it's sexual impropriety, payola, all sorts of things like that, we have not gotten back to having any level of confidence and faith in the people that we put into office. Now with, again, the unbelievable fighting that's going on, ideological fighting, whether it's the Tea Party or even Rahm Emanuel's explosion about the liberals who are fighting against Democrats, we need to get to a point, you know, in this moment where we can learn to kind of trust and respect those that we put into office as being able to do our bidding. And our country will not be able to move forward in a positive way until we can restore that. And my sadness is it's going to take a whole lot of work to do that. And politics is not a place that people aspire to go to. The smart guys don't aspire to go into politics. That's too bad. And I'd love to see that we, as a society, begin to put more emphasis on the importance of the people we elect into office really representing who we are and what we are so that maybe the smart and the caring people get put into office rather than the dumb, the unethical and the megalomaniacs that we all too often see getting elected into office. MJ: Right around the time of the election, there was a kind of palpable wave of that kind of optimism, especially among young people. GBG: Oh yeah. Oh, "Move On," certainly. Obviously. MJ: But that this is a moment where that could actually change. Do you see, is that still workable? Or has that faded too, like the goodwill after 9/11? Did that just kind of go away? GBG: You know, during the campaign, "Move On" really counted. I mean, even if you didn't pay attention to it, it was a player. They're not there. Yeah, I think unfortunately-- That's what I'm saying. That there is a disparity between the ideal and its implementation. And too often, all these ideals, no matter what they were, whether it was women's rights or civil rights or getting rid of corruption in government or philanthropy, all of these things, unfortunately that's where the disconnect occurs between the ideal and its application, or its impact. And I only hope that we'll all live to see that kind of compressing so that there's more of a connection between the two. I certainly hope that before I die, civil rights and women's rights and things like that will be something that we talked about as a historic interest. I don't want to open up a whole new can of worms. But the fact of the matter is, from a Jewish point of view, the history of the Jewish community has always been for us to find a place where we were totally accepted. We found that in two places. We found that in America. We found that in Israel. In America, despite the fact that we are totally integrated into society, for the most part, anti-semitism still exists. Not the anti-semitism of Abe Foxman, where he finds an anti-semite under every rock. But there's still some structural anti-semitism in there. And for less than 2% of the population, if you look at where we have ingratiated ourselves, it is quite remarkable. On the other hand, we haven't fully integrated. Then you have Israel, where, when the world's economy collapsed, the one economy that survived was Israel because of its innovation and its technology. Nobody gives a damn. We're still a pariah nation. And we still, in Israel, don't always behave as we're supposed to. We still don't take care of the least among our community as we should in Israel. So there's that whole other thing that I'm wrestling with every day, that as American Jews, we're still Jews in America. And in Israel, we're still not behaving as we ought to be. And when we are, nobody recognizes us. We're the ones who cured so many diseases. It came out of Israeli technology. The fact that you can instant-message somebody on the computer is thanks to a bunch of Israelis. You know, most of the stuff that we're doing on the internet is thanks to Israelis. Medical technology -- most of the stuff that we're dealing with right now is coming out of Israel. But the fact of the matter is everybody hates our guts. Again, there's the ideal and then there's the practical application. And that's what we're wrestling with. So I leave you with those two additional thoughts. MJ: Well, thank you very much. GBG: Sure. My pleasure.

Edgerton, Butler, Blunt, Foster, Yanker, Tarver and Parent Interview Transcript

MATT JACOBSON: OK, we are on Amtrak. It is Monday, January 19. We are on the 11:05 out of Penn Station, on our way to Washington, D.C. And I am speaking with-- ROSILYN EDGERTON: Rosilyn Edgerton. LEONETTE BUTLER: Leonette Butler of Newark. ANISE BLUNT: Anise Blunt from Pennsylvania. The Poconos. DEMETRIUS FOSTER: Demetrius Foster. MJ: Would you care to join us? ANDREW YANKER: Sure. Andrew Yanker. MJ: Ok. This is... Oh, I'm sorry. MARY TARVER: Mary Tarver from Plainfield, New Jersey. MJ: Great. This is.... Would you like to join us as well? CLAUDINE PARENT: Sure. MJ: And your name? CLAUDINE: Claudine Parent. MJ: OK. This is a train that I am guessing is filled almost entirely with people making a pilgrimage to Washington D.C. Although, I don't know that to be true. I am seeing a couple of resplendent, purple Obama hats in front of me. So that kind of marked this group a little bit. Let me just start with you. Could you just say a little bit about your decision to make this trek? To come down to D.C. at this particular moment? ROSILYN: OK. Well, I have to go back 45 years, because I did the March on Washington. [Pause. Becomes tearful.] Anyway. I knew Obama was going to win. So I made the reservations for this train on November 3. And I knew I wasn't going to miss it. Because it's time. It's just an awesome thing for me to be able to do something twice. Because 45 years ago, I never thought about it being history the way it has become. And for it to be Martin Luther King's celebration today and Obama being sworn in tomorrow, for me, that is divine intervention. So I'm just glad I'm able to walk and be able to get there. MJ: What, in your view, you know, suddenly the intervening years between 1963 and now look a little bit different. Suddenly, with the ascension of Obama to power, the long civil rights struggle doesn't seem maybe as bleak as it did 20 years ago or 30 years ago. What's your sense of what this means for the nation, or how it changes your own understanding of what this nation is or can be? ROSILYN: Well, it proves that the nation can come together. And for me, 45 years ago, I was in my twenties. So the excitement that I had with the change for people-- not just people of color, but for people-- I have that same feeling today. And watching HBO last night with the special that was on there, it was beautiful. It was beautiful. So I just feel that way, that it's going to escalate again and it's going to be gorgeous. MJ: Now, you two are dressed like perhaps you're traveling together. Are you in fact traveling together? LEONETTE: The four of us are. MJ: OK, and can you tell me about your decision to make this trek? LEONETTE: Well, my girlfriend Rosilyn called and she said, do you want to go? And I said, you know, I hadn't even thought about it. And I said, sure, go ahead and make the reservation. I thought you made them in October, though. ROSILYN: No, November 3. LEONETTE: It was November 3. OK. Because I didn't come for the March on Washington in 1963, and always kind of regretted that I didn't take advantage of that historic moment. So when the opportunity to be involved with another historic moment, especially one where I never really thought in my lifetime that I would actually see it-- I always felt like the money would be the thing that would keep somebody just like an everyday Joe that came from a regular family-- a single household with just the mom and grandparents taking care-- never thought that person would have the financial wherewithal to run for president, because we've seen how expensive that can become. MJ: Unbelievable, right? LEONETTE: Yes, right. And so that he was able to not only create history just by winning, but create history in so many other ways in how he raised the money. Because one of the doctors that I see-- Dr. Sampson-- she sent a check from her corporate account, and they sent it back, because they were taking no corporate contributions. So she had to then rewrite the check from her personal account. And so it was a grassroots effort. It was just the everyday, working people who supported him. It's like, how do you eat an elephant? You have to eat it one bite at a time. You can't just gobble it down. And that's how we did it. That's how it was done. MJ: Do you want to add to that part of the story? ANISE: Right. I, too, was inspired by my girlfriend Rosilyn. She called to say she was going, and I said, count me in. And she made her reservations just before the election. And I did mine a couple of days later. And never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would live to see this day. But it is such a testimony for my grands and great-grands. MJ: Rosilyn said she knew Obama was going to win. Did you know Obama was going to win? ANISE: I knew he was going to win. MJ: At what point? I didn't believe it until I saw the concession speech. [Laughter.] ANISE: I knew we needed a change, and I just knew he had it. And everything he said was just so positive. And everything that I wanted to see happen, he has a plan for it. And I just believe that he's going to do the best he can. MJ: Were you on the Mall in 1963 as well? ANISE: No, I wasn't able to go at that time and missed it. MJ: And how long have you four known each other? ANISE: She's my sister. She was here when I got here. [Laughter.] LEONETTE: Rosilyn and I have been friends for over-- ROSILYN: Over 50 years. We went to school together. MARY: And her and I have been friends for the last 18 years. MJ: Did you share your sister's optimism about the Obama campaign before the election? ANISE: Absolutely. Plus, I figured if Obama didn't win, I was grooming my grandson for presidency. And he's been told that so many years. That he has to study hard. He has to do right. Because, he has to be a president of the United States. So now, he won't be the first one, but he's going to be one. And he really understands what's going on. I mean, he's reading Obama's book and he sees similarities in his lifestyle as well. So it's an empowering thing for him as well. He's 13. MJ: And does the Obama victory change your view of what this country is? Or even what is has been over the last 20 years? It's suddenly, the past rewrites itself at certain moments. ANISE: I think so. I think it's empowering to see Obama doing what he's doing. And I think it's going to help a lot of brothers who have had excuses about not doing their best-- whatever their best happened to be-- to reach higher, and recognize that if he can do it, they can't play the game that I can't do whatever it is I want to do anymore. They've got to really stretch themselves. So it's empowering everybody, hopefully. Yeah. MJ: And now you are traveling separately? ANDREW: Yeah. MJ: And what is your story? ANDREW: I actually go to college at American University in Washington D.C. And it was where Ted Kennedy had given his endorsement of Obama during the primaries in a very tumultuous time, when it was pretty astounding because Hillary Clinton was seen so much as the front-runner in the beginning. But his speech really changed a lot of things in my own mind. My father had been a Republican. And I wasn't sure which way I was going to go in a lot of respects. And he really is a game changer for me, in a sense. I mean he really is different, he just doesn't follow the same polarizations that followed a lot of presidential campaigns before in my own mind. MJ: The indelicate question has to be asked. Is he a game changer for your parents? ANDREW: Well, my parents didn't vote in this last election. Well, actually, it's a long story. But my father passed away at the beginning of this summer-- MJ: Oh, I'm sorry. ANDREW: -- and my mother passed away when I was nine, so I'm kind of alone now. MJ: Oh, I'm very sorry. My mom passed away in May, and one of the things that I really regret is that she didn't get to see this moment, because through the spring she was so emotionally involved in the campaign. ANDREW: It was funny, because my dad was a Republican. But a lot of times I think that he just liked to start arguments with people a lot of times. And that's why he chose to be, because he lived in New York City. He had mostly Democratic friends. And he really liked to start things. MJ: That's one way to do it. ANDREW: So I guess I got a little bit of that really wanting to question things. And I think Obama has satisfied a lot of doubts that I had at least initially with the fact of these promises for change and all these types of things. And I definitely think just in his cabinet picking, and just the fact that he really has come into his own and really gained more and more momentum and more and more popularity with the election. I really think that he really can do a lot. He really can change things. He really can put our country on a good start. MJ: And you are in college right now? ANDREW: I am a sophomore. MJ: You're 20 years old? 19? ANDREW: 19. MJ: Obviously, there's a generational difference in what this moment means to people. Did you feel like you grew up with the idea that this is something that could happen in this country? ANDREW: It's really funny. I don't know what I grew up with. I think that a lot of people around me were very apathetic towards politics, a lot of youth. I think George Bush just changed a lot of things in the minds of people. He made some people more apathetic, but at the same time he really made the presidential office a little more publicized, even if it was in a bad way. He made it more publicized. And I think a lot of my friends had very strong emotions about his presidency, whether good or bad. MJ: So ironically, he kind of helped make this happen. ANDREW: Right. Yeah, I really think he did. In the minds of a lot of people, I think he, well he made it that the kind of a person who would do cocaine and things like that and be caught with it would be elected president, and stuff like that just changed the idea that you had to work for it, and it was an issue of being this and that. And it was more so that you needed to get the best person no matter what race, no matter what gender, but you needed that best person for the job, and you couldn't settle for someone who was good at shaking hands. You just couldn't settle for that anymore. And so I guess that was a big issue in the end. MJ: And sir, where are you from? DEMETRIUS: I'm from Boston. Dorchester. MJ: And you're working today? DEMETRIUS: Well, no. I'm off today. I took a few days off. MJ: OK, and so you're going to be at the inauguration as well? DEMETRIUS: Yes, I'm going to be there. MJ: And when and how did you make that decision? DEMETRIUS: From the very first day that he won the election I knew I was going to go down. I've got family out in D.C., so-- MJ: So you have a place to stay. DEMETRIUS: Yeah, right. Right. MJ: Does this change your idea of America as a nation? Is it that profound? Is it a moment of promise or is it already a moment of achievement as far as you're concerned? DEMETRIUS: Well, it's definitely an achievement. And it's a change. It's what we've been waiting for. We're at the moment, so I can't miss it. I have to be a part of it, a part of history. MJ: Well, thank you all so much. I really appreciate your time. And it's great to meet you all.

Daisy Khan Interview Transcript

MATT JACOBSON: OK, so as a start if you don't mind, can you just say and spell your name? DAISY KHAN: Daisy Khan. That's K-H-A-N. DAISY, D-A-I-S-Y. MJ: Great. And if you could, just as a start, give me just a brief kind of autobiographical sketch. Where you're from, what you've done, what you're doing now. DK: I was born in Kashmir, India. And for the first 15 years of my life I lived there. I was born in a Muslim home, went to Catholic school, had Sikh friends. My professors were Hindu. You know, I bought fresh water pearls from Buddhists and then landed in America at the age of 15 in a Jewish neighborhood. So my earlier life, my childhood was shaped by a multi-religious, multicultural experience. Highly pluralistic, very respectful and tolerant kind of society. And so, I was sent to America by my grandfather and my parents to pursue education in the arts because I was artistically inclined. And then in America I began my sort of higher education. Went to high school, then went to college, then went to design school. And got an architectural degree in interior architecture, mostly commercial design. And then my career path began. So for the first 25 years of my life I had a corporate interiors career, architectural design in Fortune 500 companies, Wall Street. And then during that time, I actually worked at the World Trade Center Towers. I was on the top most-- it was actually in the Guinness Book of World Records, the highest office space in the world with the fireplace that was at the highest level. So I worked there for about five years and was very intimate with lower Manhattan. And subsequent to that, I got married to an Imam in 1996 and his mosque was only 12 blocks from Ground Zero. We kind of took a look at our community, the Muslim community and its growth and its evolution and what would we need to do and how could be help the Muslim community? He was in a leadership role, I had sort of a very strong activist streak in me. I was always involved in doing volunteer work and extracurricular activities. And I had gone through kind of a religious struggle myself trying to define myself in America with all the multiple identities I juggled. MJ: How old were you when you came to the United States? DK: 15. MJ: 15. DK: But I saw the Iranian revolution and I was the solo Muslim here. And I always felt the burden of having to explain to others what Islam was, who Muslims were, even though I was just a lay person. Very tough questions were always asked of me. And so that desire forced me to learn more about my faith because in order for me to explain to others, I would have to know the basics about my own religion. You know, I went through the Rushdie affair and that was difficult for me because on the one hand I was very, supported freedom of expression and speech. The artist in me always wanted to be free. And on the other hand, it was something against my religion. A prophet that I loved and adored and so I was kind of very troubled by that whole experience. And that forced me to sort of reconcile in myself what I really was. Was I a Muslim? Was I going to be a practicing Muslim? And in that process I went through my own sort of search, search for God, on my own terms. And I met my husband during that time. And so, shortly after that we had this idea that the evolution of a religious community really comes with certain kind of institution building, or religion's Americanize through institution building. And we looked at the Christian community and the Jewish community and realized that they had built certain institutions that intersect between their religious community, but also intersect with a public. And so the model of the YMCA, the model of the JCC's for the Jewish community, so an equivalent of that would have to be also established for the Muslim community. So the genesis of the idea had emerged from that. MJ: And over what period of time? DK: This would be from 1997 to just before 9/11. In fact we tried to purchase a building near another YMCA a year before 9/11 happened. We didn't succeed because of lack of funding; somebody else bought it faster. And then we shelved the whole plan when 9/11 happened. Our work pretty much got redefined for us. MJ: Can you say more about redefined in what particular ways? DK: Well, when we had started the organization American Society for Muslim Advancement, our emphasis was what I called “in-reach,” reaching within the community, teaching younger Muslim's because I had had to struggle. So had my husband. So we both knew that people were struggling with how to balance faith and modernity. You know, this is the biggest challenge of the day for every person who was a person of faith. And how do you live a life of faith and how do you intersect with the challenges of the modern life? We had found a way and there were many people attracted to that message. There were many people attracted to that model. You know, I was a working woman, but I was also very religiously engaged, and so people saw that. How were they doing it? So our work was primarily to teach other Muslims, younger Muslims, on how to not have to choose between being a citizen and being a person of faith. And that in America, America allows you that space. You can be both. MJ: I would love to hear more if you can articulate it, I'm not sure how much that is possible. To kind of narrate your own consciousness is actually what I'm going to ask you to do. But I'm really interested in that process that you went through and how you arrived at a place that seems very settled with that question. Can you describe the process of wrestling with the question of faith and modernity and maybe certain points that you can recognize as turning points in your own path as you were struggling with that? DK: Well identities can be alter identities and I think that when people wrap their identities around what I call the outer forms of an identity rather than the essence of what you are, I think it becomes problematic. So for instance, defining Muslim from the standpoint of the parochial sense. You know, I do this. I do that. I pray this way or I-- you know. And not the ethical dimension. Ethical dimension is where we kind of dissolve and our commonalities come in. Do unto others as you want unto yourself. And really, even going even deeper than that and deeper into yourself and looking at the core of your essence. Who are you? Where does your consciousness come from? You know, for instance. And I realized-- this was of course, with my husband helping me because he was a spiritual leader and I asked many questions. And he ultimately taught me that you can have multiple, multiple identities and people can actually take those away from you. Like somebody can challenge your Muslim-ness or somebody-- but if your identity is really one that nobody can take away from you, that is an identity you can latch onto. And that is really defined from an Islamic perspective and I think from all monotheistic faith traditions, which is that each and every one of us has is us, a spark of the divine. You know, what we call the breath of the divine or God's light and that's what makes us human and that's what set us apart from the animal kingdom and all the other kingdoms that exists out there. And that's also what is common in all of us, all six billion of us. And this, nobody can take away from you. This kind of relationship that you have with God, no one can take away from you. And you can do it quietly and you can do it outwardly. You know, you can profess it outwardly, but really inwardly if your connection with God is so strong. And then you find ways to navigate that relationship. How do you navigate that within the rules and the boundaries of that society? So for instance, I loved God so much I wanted to do everything that God told me to do. You know, fast for a whole month. And I was working at Wall Street at that time and I remember how difficult it was to not go to lunch with people and to not tell people that I'm fasting for a whole month. What were they going to think? I mean I was the solo Muslim. It wasn't like it is now when there are many Muslims out there and for a couple of weeks I hid it. I said, oh no, I'm on a diet. I would go through that whole process. And then I started looking around and then one of my friends who was a person of faith, also a very devout, Christian came to me. And he was gay and he'd never told me this before. He said you're not by any chance doing that Ramadan thing are you? I said, yes, but I didn't want to tell anybody. He says, oh, you can confide in me. I'm your friend. And he said, I can cover you and I can go to lunch and we won't do anything during that lunch time. So for another week I did that. And then other people started wondering. There was a Jewish guy there and he was from an Orthodox family even though he was not a practicing Jew himself. And he looked at me and he said, you're not waiting for sundown are you? I've noticed you eat at sundown. Because he was very keyed into the Jewish sundown thing. And I said, yeah. I think it was like I was maybe 20 days into Ramadan and everybody had discovered that I was fasting. And then the tradition began. They all came to me one day and cornered me in my cubicle and said, what's going on here? How come you haven't told us? And then I had a Catholic secretary. She said, I'm so embarrassed because you starve for the whole day and I'm a devout Catholic and I only give up one thing for Lent, so I'm really impressed with your devotion. And then people said, well, what can we do for you? I said, well, there is a tradition that if you feed a fasting person, you get the blessing of their fast. So you can imagine, next day, mountains of food awaiting at my desk. A muffin, a piece of chocolate, something. And on the last day there was like a whole thing that everybody was celebrating Ramadan with me. Now, this is the way-- then I got bolder next time and I started telling people ahead of time. Because I realized that actually people appreciate it. MJ: Right. Can you remember before that moment that you just described, what you thought was at stake in people or not knowing? DK: Oh, at that point my career was at stake. MJ: You really felt that? DK: Of course, because I felt that people might-- maybe I might get discriminated against. Maybe people will think that she belongs to the same religion that the terrorists belong to. Because you know, there had been previous attacks [...inaudible...]. We had a bunch of characters before and then there was a hostage crisis and the hostage crisis, I really internalized that because I saw that unfold. And it was very traumatic for me because I had never seen images of that associated with Islam before. Because I came from a very loving, peaceful, tolerant Muslim society. And hostage taking was something so alien, and that I began to think people are going to think I'm that kind of a Muslim. And I was young. And I had no guides and I had no people to tell me how to-- I didn't have a civil liberties organization and I just was concerned. And so I chose that it's best for me to keep it private. So people come to us, for instance, younger Muslims come to us and say, what should we do in the workspace when we can't pray? How should we deal with the situation? You know, I'm in Wall Street. I'm on the trading floor, I can't go and pray. What should I do? These are the kinds of questions that people have. And so we give them various different-- understanding their predicament. And I've been in corporate America and I know what the predicament is. You ultimately have to make a livelihood. You can't come in there and roll out your rug in the middle of a trading floor and expect everybody to start clapping. Things have to be gradually done as I did myself until people really like you, trust you as a person, and respect your ethics. So I always tell people, I said the most important thing is you have to be the most ethical person around. Once you're ethical, people will give you a lot of rope, you know? And so focus on the ethics first. Then share your situation with a few people, maybe a boss, maybe somebody who's-- we Muslims practice our faith openly. It's not a faith that you can keep private. It's kind of like a little bit more like the Jewish faith. I mean we pray, we roll out a rug. You know, it's a big thing. We fast, we're starving the whole thing for 30 days. It's not just a one day thing. So it's a faith that has a lot of outward expressions. So how to kind of navigate that in the American cultural expression is very exciting work, but it's also challenging. But I say exciting because you're creating a new path. You're creating history. You're creating kind of a new way of being without having to give up the essential core values of your faith. MJ: Just to back up a bit, you were talking or you were beginning to talk, I think I derailed you, but you were talking about kind of pre-9/11 in-reach and post-9/11 outreach. DK: Yeah so the in-reach was more about kind of getting to know your own relationship and your own faith. And what I was talking about was not only just myself, but really the people that we catering to, which were the younger, the next generation of Muslims. And what was it that they needed and kind of being their mentors. And then, overnight our kind of audience changed. Instead of our audience being this young group of Muslims who would come and say, tell us how to deal with this verse of the Koran or what should we do here, how should be pray, what should we do this? The questions were almost the opposite, which is who are you? Why are you here? Why do you hate us? Why do they hate us? You know, why is your religion so violent? Why do you treat women so badly? And like a whole range of almost 130 questions that people have asked over time. And the frequency of these questions and these lectures and this outreach was so huge that it actually defined our life work. And in that process I could not commit myself to doing both. I could no longer commit myself. I was distracted at my job. I was thinking about, how am I going to do this? And I felt that it was time for me to focus on my-- instead of building buildings, really build community. And I'd like to focus on human development and community building. So I shifted gears and left my corporate career. MJ: And when was that? What year was that? DK: I think it was 2005. MJ: OK. And then you had talked about, even in the late '90s, already you were beginning to come to some kind of vision that it if it wasn't the Cordoba initiative, it kind of was the start of that idea. DK: It was definitely the start of that idea because both my husband and I had been very comfortable with the pluralism that exists within Islam and the pluralism that exists even in all religions. We fundamentally believe that all people are created equal, that part of the divine plan is to create different religions and to test humanity through getting to know one another. So both of us had been very committed to that from the onset. And I think this is why when 9/11 happened we were really equipped to go and speak to the audiences. And both of us had straddled two cultures, so-- MJ: Your husband is from where? DK: He's of Egyptian origin, but he lived in London and Malaysia and gone to Egypt. His parents are Egyptian. And then when he came to the states, his father was Imam here at 72nd Street and then the Imam for the 96th Street Mosque. So he was steeped in a religious family. And he saw his father build a whole community here when there was nothing. And so he had kind of seen the evolution of how communities get developed and he had also interacted with Jewish leaders at a very young age when he was going with his father everywhere. And I had also seen a community being built because when I went to Long Island and I kind of landed in Long Island in Jericho where my uncle lived and I stayed with him. MJ: That was the first place that you-- DK: That was the first place, yeah. That my uncle had started the beginnings, the seed of creating a new first mosque, really the first big mosque in Long Island was created by my family. And a handful of other doctors. And that mosque is right now flourishing. And I had my footprint in that, literally. I designed the carpet and I helped the architect with some of the design elements. So I had seen the community develop and my husband had already been part of it, so when we came together we kind of like said, OK, how do we take a community to the next level? Instead of just a mosque, what do we need to do? We need to engage people in the athletic area. We need to engage people socially. We need to engage them through culture and arts and the kind of stuff that everybody else has done before us. MJ: Can you describe the immediate aftermath of 9/11 then? You were talking about-- well, I'll just leave it open. DK: Media was very different after 9/11 than it is now. Media itself has changed a lot. For instance after 9/11 there were no blogs, no internet. I mean it was very limited. You're as old as I am probably. You remember what only a 10 year difference, just in the last 10 years how much things have changed. So it was really traditional media. And we didn't have the kind of vitriol. They would spend a lot of their time, majority of the time, on the acts of the terrorists and very little time on the responses that the Muslim community was giving. Or, in other words, the portrayal was very imbalanced. So there was a lot of emphasis on who did it and who the people are and what did they do, and not how do Muslims feel about it. So we felt that we were shut out of the whole tragedy. Because we had to be on the defensive. We were always defending our faith and we were always having to explain the actions of somebody else whose ideology neither we shared nor we endorsed. And in fact, we abhorred. MJ: One of the things that struck me in that immediate year or two, there were-- occasionally video tapes would surface with Osama bin Laden and on those tapes he was always talking in terms that were more about political economy than about religion. And yet, the kind of dominant reaction in the U.S., among non-Muslims in the U.S., was that it was all about Islam, it was all about religion. How do you understand that? How do you understand the ways in which non Muslim Americans have so kind of confused the relationship between the politics of terrorists and the religion of several billion people in the world? DK: Yeah. I mean the conflation of-- conflating Islam with the actions of terrorism and not being able to delink them is at the core of what the problem is right now. Because by doing that, a, they put the rest of the Muslim community on the defensive, so Muslim community cannot really come forward and roll up their sleeves and be part of the solution. Because we're always on the defensive. And on the other hand, what they do is they empower the extremists by doing that. Because now they say, “You're the real Muslim. You're the authentic Muslim because you're upholding the banner of Islam.” If we neutralized them and said, “Oh they're really terrorists or they're really murderers, “and call them for what they are rather than give them this veneer, this Islamic veneer that they used-- they craft so well because it's a recruiting tool and it has been done by other religions before. And so not kind of understanding the history of how people have abused religion is what's puzzling to me. Why do you not understand when the Crusades went in the name of Christianity and went and did the horrible things that they did, Why do you not understand that the same thing is happening now? These people have a political end and they're using Islam as a veneer, as a recruiting tool. Islam is very simple. The messaging is very simple. You know, seek justice. And they have a lot of causes that they can rally people around them. So, instead of focusing on their message, focus on the heinous acts that they do, which are an affront to Islam. Or which is an absolute distortion of the Islamic scripture. Let's focus on that. You see, the Muslim community would rally around that. We would all be delighted to engage in that. And that is that part I do not understand. I'm still puzzled by that, even with every terrorist attack that happens here. It's always that label, Muslim terrorists instead of calling them what they are, and then letting the Muslim community come in and say, these people are committing an act that is an affront to my religion or to our religion or the religion of 1.6 billion people. And then let that be the dominant discourse rather than the other way around. Now, our way of tackling with that was to create a center that would become a counter momentum to that ideology by promoting the voices of the moderates or the mainstream Muslim community. This is why this center would be dedicated to empowering the Muslims who hardly ever get heard. And then we see an attack on us as if we are linked with the extremists. MJ: What were the first signs that you got that that was going to be the case? I mean this has been kind of all over the newspapers for the last four to six months, but I'm sure that you were-- I mean it was on your horizon much earlier than that. Can you describe the genesis of this current moment that you find yourself in, and what were some of the early warning signs that your project was being misunderstood or slandered or was going to be? DK: Well, the project actually did come out in the news in early December. There was a wonderful article in The New York Times. Very thoughtful article about prayer and renewal at Ground Zero. And the gentleman who wrote the article talked about how, what Muslims were doing, their responsibility. It was the kind of article that-- or the kind of story that should have been told all along, even post, after that. But what happened was nobody paid any attention to that. It was a lovely article. People called us and congratulated us and said we can't wait for you to build a center. It sounds like such a wonderful place. You know, there were interfaith people who talked about it, there were 9/11 families who endorsed it. It was a whole range of people. And then we took our cue and we said,  “Wow. This is wonderful. So many people are so appreciative of what we're doing.” And so we kind of moved on from that. We had our landmark. The attorney who was representing the building said there might be a slight landmark issue. Before you guys pursue with the full thing, make sure that that gets ironed out and speak to the community board. So we went to the community board and the community board was very, very appreciative of the center. And then that evening there was a reporter there from Daily News who then wrote an article the next day and on the page the first article, it said 13-story mosque at Ground Zero. And I said, well, it's not a 13-story mosque at Ground Zero. It's a community center. MJ: It's not at Ground Zero. DK: It's not at Ground Zero and it's not a 13-story mosque. And that was fine because it wasn't so damaging. But what happened after that was when New York Post picked it up. And we started getting phone calls from investigative reporters who were investigating terrorism and who were investigating our funding. And we realized that we have a big problem on our hands. MJ: And this was last spring or when did that start? DK: May. MJ: May, yeah. DK: May of this year. And then we started seeing certain people come out against the project through blogs and certain opposition groups come out right away and we knew that we were done because-- done with-- because the opposition had done this before to other people. They had already gone through a dry run with another person when the Khalil Jabran Academy was being established. And they had done another dry run when they tried to promote this film called Obsession. 30 million households, they distributed this horrendous film. It's the same set of people that were dedicated-- MJ and DK: Pamela Geller. DK: I mean, it's a group of people that have resources and then they used New York Post and Fox to kind of be their channel. And they became full time dedicated to it. MJ: And they became stars. DK: Well they became stars, but the news outlets basically dedicated their full time to this. So every day we would see something new and different about us. A new accusation, a new something. So we knew that there was a opposition. Of course, then politicians jumped in because it was election cycle. So they thought, oh, this is great. This is great to continue the fear, keep the fear alive. MJ: Right. Rick Lazio. DK: Rick Lazio. You know, Newt Gingrich. The republican establishment jumped in, created an ad and it was-- MJ: Can you talk about your own strategic position over-- I mean, how have you dealt with this over the months? What were your initial thoughts about how you could combat this? And where do you find yourself now in terms of turning back this vitriol? DK: Well, the only way to combat this was to let people know who we really are and what we stand for. And we knew that we could not necessarily do that through the media. The media would not listen to us because, especially the media that mattered. The media that was continuing to promote this, almost this grotesque image of us. We couldn't even recognize ourselves after a while. I would be afraid to turn on the TV because I'm like, oh my God. That's me? That can't be me. Are you talking about me? I mean I'd always be fighting to the TV. You're not talking about me! We decided that our best defense was to reach out to all our interfaith partners that we had worked with. And in fact, we hardly had to do anything. They rushed to us. They said, you guys aren't going to be-- nobody's going to do this to you while we're alive. Because we had built such strong alliances from this earliest of times when we started that we just called a couple of meetings, called people and everybody started writing on blogs. Everybody started calling, going on the media, being surrogates. And because they felt that our fight is a fight that they had fought before or their predecessors had fought before against somebody else. The Jewish community was very instrumental. The Rabbinical community of New York pretty much-- MJ: Gary Bretton-Granatoor. DK: Yeah, went in full force against their own. Against the ADL. And so those were the major defining moments for us because we knew that even though we were at the front line of the battle, we had a whole army behind us. And it was a very strong army. Just knowing that there are supporters behind you was enough for us to be able to withstand this pressure. I think by ourselves it would have been a very difficult thing to continue to fight this way. MJ: One of the things that struck me, I was at the Historic Preservation Board hearing downtown in August or so, whenever that was. And when the nine members, they-- DK: Oh, you came to Landmark Preservation. MJ: Exactly, the Landmark right. They announced their positions and-- DK: That was quite a beautiful ceremony. MJ: Well it was beautiful and the thing that struck me was-- well, there were a couple things that stuck me. One was I could only count a tiny, tiny handful of people in the room who were visibly against the project. Pam Geller was one of them. But there were not many people there. I mean, there were not that many people there anyway. DK: Not at that one. Because they had already heard that it was going to go in our favor. MJ: Is that what it was? DK: And they had decided to stay away. MJ: OK, because the thing that struck me was that the largest single constituency in the room was probably the media. And then the second largest was Jews for Peace who had an enormous presence there. DK: Yeah, J. Street. MJ: So when the decision was handed down there was this amazing kind of collective sigh of relief and the right thing has happened. And so it was almost shocking two days later to see these screaming headlines on Newsweek. But you already knew that that was going to be kind of the case at that point? DK: Well we weren't privy to what was going to happen that day. But the fact that the community board systematically approved this project over and over again overwhelmingly. You know, the first vote, the second vote, the third vote. How many votes do you have to have? And the community wanted us. The irony is all the opposition was coming from outside New York City. You know, Pam Geller-- I mean, Spencer and Gingrich, and all these other people who don't even live in New York, who don't have a stake in New York and are speaking on behalf of the 9/11 families as if they represent the 9/11 families. So we knew that there was something more to this. It wasn't just the 9/11 families opposing this on the basis of the sensitivity issue. We knew that we had become an election issue. The only way we could combat this was to get our grassroots galvanized with us and create these big vigils and you saw, like 6,000 people went to a vigil. I mean that doesn't happen without people really believing what they believe in. So many people came forward because each person had their own cause. It was like everybody who had a cause kind of came together, all kinds of disparate groups were coming together to fight the fight for us. Because they saw in our cause their cause. MJ: Right. One of the questions I had and I wonder how you see this. My own historian's sense of this is that it's really important that Obama is the president. That part of the opposition and part of the vitriol that you all are getting is this kind of pervasive sense of white Christian displacement on the part of a certain-- I don't have to know how numerically significant they are, but there's a group of people out there who are just plain mad that there's a black man in the White House. And I wonder if you could talk about both, first of all, what his election meant to you when that happened and maybe if that was a particular moment of hope for the kind of pluralistic vision you've described? But then also, how you see the vitriol against him as being of a piece with what you all have faced in the last year? DK: Yeah. Well I think that one of the things that I have seen through this whole crisis is that I believe as a nation we have not dealt with the whole tragedy of 9/11. I think it's a conversation we never really had. What did it mean for America and its mainland to be attacked by a group of people sitting in a cave in Afghanistan? We've never been vulnerable as a nation, we've never been vulnerable as a people. We think that we are, you know, no one can attack us. You know, strong, we're the mightiest nation. And I think we are, as a nation, suffering on many fronts. Sort of the decline of our economic power as China emerges and India emerges. Loss of jobs and there's just a lot of unmanaged anger. And then we come along, this whatever-- 3% of the Muslim community that's going to topple over America. And then there's a minority president. And it's as if America has, you know, reversed its course and is no longer white and is no longer Christian. There's a lot of angst about a much ado about nothing because the reality is America is a nation of immigrants and has always had new people come and integrate and make it what it is. So I think that we're just going through the pains of what is inevitably a change for America. You know, the browning of America, America is changing as a nation. But the difficulty is that the changes that used to happen before happened over generations and happened without all this extra media and without the blogs and the information highway. But now everything is magnified so much more that people have become much more perceptive. You know, what's happening? What happens in New York is inevitably a story wherever you go in the world. I mean I travel and recently, wherever I've traveled, everybody knows about the story. Everybody has seen me on the Town Hall with Christiane Amanpour. I said, in Egypt? She said, oh yeah, it was on Egypt TV. And I'm like, OK, this is the problem we have now. On the one hand we are so local. On the other hand, we're so globalized with the information that is being spread out there that the information itself is creating an angst because people then don't know how to deal with it. They see images, they see things, they hear things, and then they don't have anybody to go to and say, well, I didn't know that. So we're discovering that everywhere we go, if we sit down with a group of people to do a dialogue, after we sit down with them and tell them who we are and what we're about and what the center was all about: “Nobody ever told me that. I have no problem with what you're doing now.” But that's the problem, is that media has become so powerful. And I'm not just talking about mainstream media. I'm talking about alternative media, has become so powerful. And each person, whatever their own sort of ideology is, tends to lean towards a certain media. The country gets very decided along certain ideological lines. And there is no kind of-- MJ: There's no common. DK: There's no common anymore. MJ: How do we tend this world? Both from a spiritual point of view, but also from a political point of view? What are the things that we can do to foster the kinds of exchange and communication that seems so imperiled at this moment? DK: The one thing I think, you're always going to have these kinds of issues. The question is, who's magnifying it, and who's not magnifying it? News by its nature was always news and there were newspapers that would report the news and it was in a certain context, right? It would have, “Man bites dog.” It was news. And we understand that people who are normal are not news and we know that when something happens abnormal, that's news. But when you magnify that abnormal to such an extent that that becomes the dominant frame and the dominant discourse, then that's a problem because all you're doing is giving a platform to that abnormal. And to some extent, the media has given Osama bin Laden a platform, a free television. Anytime he wants to do a videotape it's out there. He doesn't need a PR company, he just does it. MJ: Right, or a record label. DK: Yeah. And all you've done is given him his platform. He can recruit people. There's always somebody who's going to fall for his ideology. I mean people are different by nature. On the other hand, there's nothing sexy about the work that Muslims are doing who are rolling up their sleeves every single day. And what has happened now is that the extremists are defining the agenda for the rest of us. And as they have done let's say with the Tea Party movement here, they got so much coverage, so much coverage all the time that people rally around them. Because their message is very simple, it's provocative, it's obnoxious, whatever it is that they're using. And meanwhile, you have majority of people who don't think that way, the majority of people are centrist, majority of people don't want to hate. They want to be polite and respectful. But that majority does not have a voice anymore. And that I think is what John Stewart was trying to do with rally, when he created his rally, was to bring all the rest of us together. MJ: Yeah, Perin [DK's colleague, MJ's former student] told me you were there. DK: I have never gone to a rally in my life because I have to admit, I'm not a rally person. MJ: I was there as well. DK: You were? MJ: Yeah. What was your sense of it? Did you think it was a significant event or was it just a kind of quirky thing that happened and will come and go? DK: No, I don't think it was quirky. I think it was a significant event because a comedian had to step into the role of what politicians are supposed to do. Politicians are supposed to rally people. Either religious people have rallied people or politicians have rallied people. This is the role that, you know, and all of a sudden you have a comedian, or comedians, come out and restore sanity to the world. To say, wait a minute, there is a centrist. This is how people in the middle think. So I think it was significant from that standpoint. That when comedians have to step into this role, then you know that society is-- that we have to take pause. MJ: In your analysis, what is the root of the problem? Is it just the volume of hatred that's out there that finds an outlet? Or is it just that there's so much money to be made in amplifying and magnifying extreme views? Or are those things separable? DK: Well, if there was no media there would be none of the this angst because we would not know about it. Everybody would be within their own sort of network of people and all the problems would be local. You know, and we would be resolving conflict in this thing. But now news outlets-- I mean as I see news and as I see-- you know, journalism has shifted in this country. A lot of it is about the bottom line. And it is run by mega corporations and so I think a lot of stress is being put on good journalists to do more sensational media. To do more provocative media. To look for that abnormal. To amplify that abnormal because that's what's going to get the ratings. And I think certain kind of impoliteness has crept in as a result of that. And I feel bad because I see a lot of really good journalists having to do things that they themselves don't want to do. They themselves feel that they have to be much ruder to you and ask you rude questions. And it's not in their nature. It's not part of their training, but they have to make the show exciting or make the story more exciting to the reader. I think that just like anything else, a lot of it is just very profit driven now. MJ: We've seen certainly that the new media, especially the internet, can be part of the problem. Do you think they can be part of the solution as well? DK: Well, I was glad to see that YouTube finally pulled down these videos, these recruiting videos from YouTube. Today we heard the news. This is the best news of my-- I'm like, why didn't we do this before? We've been asking why do we allow recruiting tools that invite people to come to Jihad and to fight these kind of crazy wars? Why do we allow this stuff to be on the internet? I mean we're talking about pornography, which doesn't really-- you know, it's harmful, but doesn't kill people. But yet, we allow people to have these videos where anybody from anywhere in the world can come and see and download and get inspired by this. There's always a bunch of angry people. There's always a couple of people who are rebellious and there are always a couple of people who want to do justice and find this. And so I think that we really have to look at the internet and see how-- what is the right, delicate balance to providing information? But do we have a responsibility to take down information that promotes hate and war and uglyness? Should we not be considering that? It's a balance. It's something that we have to look at. MJ: So the outlook from here, 2010, two days after what was to many of us a very distressing election. Are you basically optimistic or basically pessimistic about what's coming down the road for us? DK: I think that we are in a change mode. I have never seen America like this before. I haven't lived here long enough. I'm not old enough or I don't have parents that lived here, so there's no one who can tell me the history of America before. I only landed here in 1974. So I see an America that has constantly been changing. And it's the first time that I have now experienced a different kind of America than I experienced before. I think we're still going to change as a nation and we're going to continue to change as a nation. If we hold onto our fundamental values that defined this nation-- religious freedoms and treating everybody as an equal, then I think we will prevail. And I'm confident we'll prevail. I think Americans are by nature, a very fair people. So we go through these moments of doubt, but that fairness always prevails. And we almost always seem to correct ourselves. And there is a corrective measure in this country and the corrective measure is the very robust and healthy civil society that we have in this country. And I think it's a civil society that reigns in and comes in and corrects whatever that needs to be corrected. So I'm confident because there are mechanisms in place that can bring us back from the brink of whatever that we're about to go into. And our own experience, had it not been for the work of all the faith communities and the various civil society organizations that came to our aid, had it not been for that, for that force to unleash itself in our favor, then surely, I'm sure we would have been in the same situation as the Japanese were. You know, because it doesn't take very little to defame or demonize someone. MJ: Have there been moments, either after 9/11 or in the midst of this more recent Cordoba Initiative controversy, have there been times when you have been viscerally afraid? DK: Well, I have too much faith in God and I believe fundamentally that whatever's going to happen is going to happen. And so, I operate from this that I'm protected from above. That I have faith in God. And I am fundamentally, an optimist. I don't believe anybody would ever do anything harmful to anyone. And I'm happy that I'm that way because to be any other way would have probably put me in a lot of despair. So I personally never was afraid for myself, but when I speak to law enforcement people and they give us stories of other people who have had challenges and the types of situations that have happened with other people, who has killed who and for what reason and how can people do harm to you and that is when I began to get nervous, was the first time that I said, oh my goodness. This is real. People could actually do this. But my nature tends to be a very optimist nature, and I thrive on that and that's what keeps me hopeful. MJ: I just ran across this reference the other day. There's an African American writer named Chester Himes who apparently in the 1940s wrote an essay. The title was "Democracy is for the Unafraid." Those are words to live by. DK: Yes, absolutely. MJ: Well this has been wonderful. I really am grateful for your time. Is there anything that you feel that we should have talked about that we didn't, or anything that you'd like to say that you haven't? DK: I think the untold story in all of this is how-- you know, you said, what else can we do? If the interfaith communities truly come together and they truly work on the foundations of the common ground that they share, that we will be able to rally a lot of people together across faiths and across ideologies. And we would be able to also fight the extremists. Because the extremism is all about the exclusive ideology. It's my way or the highway. And the rest of us are all about inclusivity. We're all in it together. We're all God's children. Kumbaya, let's come together and let's not be afraid of one another. All of this journey is about getting to know each other. And to be the best person that you can be. I mean that's one way. And that's where majority of people are. And the problem is the majority is sandwiched between the extremists of this religion and extremists of that religion. And I think the moderates have to rise up and all religions have to rise up and neutralize the extremists. Because if we don't do it actively, they will dominate. As they have done in the past histories. MJ: Right. DK: That's it. MJ: OK, well thank you so much. DK: Thank you.