Ricardo Levins Morales Interview Transcript

MATT JACOBSON: Do you mind saying and spelling your name for me? I'll use that to set the levels. RICARDO LEVINS MORALES: My name is Ricardo Levins Morales. That's R I C A R D O L E V I N S M O R A L E S. MJ: Great. OK, to get us started, maybe you wouldn't mind just giving me a brief autobiographical sketch -- where you're from, what you've done, what you're doing now, how you got to where you are. We can kind of move in that way. RLM: OK, well, I was born in the coffee growing region of Western Puerto Rico, in a family that was involved in the independence movement. We moved to the states just before entering my teen years. My family moved to Chicago right when the shit was hitting the fan with mass movements and such in the late '60s. Became politically active in that context in various struggles -- anti-war, in my school, in work in support of the Black Panther Party, and the Young Lords Organization. Dropped out of high school and moved out of home when I was 15. Lived with other friends there and eventually moved with my girlfriend to New England, a little mill town. Bopped around, did a lot of hitchhiking. MJ: Which town? RLM: Newmarket, New Hampshire. At the time it was a little mill town. Came here in the mid to late '70s -- '76, after having been involved in a union drive at a hospital in Boston, and realizing that it really had kind of gotten me excited and either I was going to put down roots in Boston or I was going to be more deliberate. So I decided to be more deliberate and look for a slightly smaller city. MJ: What kind of work were you doing in Boston at that point? RLM: In the hospital I was a janitor. I worked in restaurants. I did a little bit of warehouse work. In New Hampshire, it was factories and restaurants. I did one fall helping bring in the apple harvest in Vermont while I was living in Boston. So really a combination of those kinds of jobs. That's the kind of thing I started out doing here as well -- janitorial, I was a carpenter's apprentice doing weatherization for a time, and eventually ended up in the screen printing industry. I had already taught myself screen printing, as part of my political and artistic interest. Just got some materials and taught myself out of a book. Helped start an organization here for doing political art, which lasted for 30 years and just closed last summer. That was something that was connected with the labor movement and various other struggles. Labor was the primary root of it, but we worked on all kinds of things. And a lot of the work that I have here was done through that organization and in conjunction with different movement groups and the like. MJ: So, as you narrate it, there seems to be, on the face of it, a very kind of steady flow from the kind of politics you were involved in in Chicago, into the union, and it's all of a piece. Was it experienced that way as you were kind of a young man coming to political consciousness, or was it more episodic? RLM: Well, it's hard to say. It was always connected. I became active in a time when the prevailing consciousness on the left was that there was one movement, and a lot of faces of it. So that it was not uncommon that some of the women from the Chicago Women's Graphics Collective would come down from the North Side to help the Black Panther Defense Committee do some guerrilla theater, and we hold our meetings at the home of the local coordinator of the gay liberation front. There was no sense that these were separate movements or the euphemism now with communities. So that there was that idea that we're all doing different work, but it was all part of some kind of common move toward social justice. So in that sense it was always continuity. I think that I responded to what was happening at any given time, just looking around, what was prominent. When I moved here I got involved in a farmer's movement that was fighting a high-voltage power line. They ended up being part of a kind of a three-cornered alliance between us urban environmentalists, the farmers, and the American Indian Movement. So it was a great learning experience. It was during that time, I think, that I sort of felt that I was solidifying artistically that I'd been going from thing to thing, but I started being able to draw on my experience from my youth, from my teenage years, and feeling that it was all kind of becoming integrated more into my perspective, my ability to organize. MJ: And so for you, was the artistic work, was it always political, or was that a matter of kind of finding a voice over time? RLM: I guess the continuity is that it was always whatever was important to me. So that when I was really little that was chickens. I grew up on a farm. That morphed into pirates when I was a little bit older. And then it morphed into overthrowing oppressive global systems. So there was never kind of an idea of how do I apply my art to politics. It always sort of organically, whatever is important to me is what I'll do art about. MJ: Can you walk me through a little bit from chickens to overthrowing oppressive regimes of global politics? I'm very interested in the kind of coming to political consciousness, because it sounds like you traveled a great distance at a very young age. RLM: Yeah. Well, I had a head start, having parents were involved in politics. Now, there wasn't a lot of activism anymore in the mountains at the time I was growing up. It switched to the cities, so I wasn't directly exposed. But I was indirectly, and I certainly absorbed my parents' values. So, when I arrived in Chicago, I was aware of a lot of what was going on, and one of my big interests was political cartoons and caricature. So I copied from other artists who I admired and looked at the photographs in the newspapers. I could do LBJ and Nixon and local officials. I got very good at drawing pictures of older white men, the political power houses. So, my art was political. It wasn't really activist in the sense that only occasionally was it put to use. And my activism really was more just coming in at street level, like anyone else -- helping to organize events, educational stuff, leafleting, demos, marches, stapling picket signs together, running off mimeograph machines, rather than as an artist. But once in a while, I'd do a flyer for a demonstration or a fundraiser or whatever. It just little by little crept in there. I was studying, you know looking at what the Cuban poster artists were doing. I got an issue of Ramparts Magazine made me discover silk screen printing -- said whatever the hell that is, I want to do it. So that's kind of how that developed, I guess. When we moved to Minneapolis in '76, I already had in mind to be part of some kind of collective group of political artists. MJ: And you said that was a very deliberate choice. Was that part of the deliberation that there was an existing kind of progressive culture here there was attractive to you? RLM: Yeah. There was that, that it was a smaller progressive milieu than in cities like New York or San Francisco or Chicago where it seemed a lot more sectarian. Where as long as you had three people who agreed with you, you would split off and form your own party. MJ: Right, or one. RLM: Exactly. I mean it seems that in the smaller towns, people were more aware that they needed each other, or in the South or in rural areas. I wanted a big enough community to support screen printing habit, but I wanted one that was not culturally completely dominated by academia, since I, obviously, had no connection to it directly. I didn't want to be in an Ann Arbor, a Madison or a Berkeley where there was high turnover, the community was student dominated, and the economy was as well. So this seemed to be a city that had a diverse enough economy that it wasn't all college town, but it had some of the advantages. MJ: So you've been here over 30 years. What are some of the salient changes you've seen in that -- I won't call it a community, but that kind of configuration of communities -- kind of the arts, progressive culture, labor culture, that kind of left public culture. RLM: Well, I guess one major change is the demographics has changed a lot since the mid-'70s with various waves of immigration, the Hmong immigration from Laos, and the camps in Thailand, Somali, East African, Vietnamese -- a basic kind of a wave of sort of a map of the world crises in the system. There was a large influx of African Americans from Gary and kind of the Chicago area, Rust Belt that built up the black community here. When I first came here, the Mexicano community was largely on the west side of Saint Paul, mostly people who had settled out of the migrant stream -- a community that started mostly in the '30s. Now the Latino community in Minneapolis is much larger and has stretched out all along Lake Street and south Minneapolis. So a lot of the demographics has changed, and those various communities have their own activists, history in their own activist culture. Each wave sort of generally huddling among internally for a while, and then after a generation or so starting to break out into local politics. With the youth sometimes being the first to make links with youth of other cultures, and largely around hip hop. MJ: How have you seen your own artistic work respond to those changes over decades? RLM: It's like jazz improv -- I keep riffing with it. It's in fact one of the great satisfactions that I have, and I can speculate about more than really have any answers to how it works, is that my art continues to be embraced by upcoming generations, so that it's very much used by young people. So all over places like Facebook with people 17, 18-year-old and on into their 20s, using my pieces of their profile pictures. Being approached by young people doing hip hop, wanting me to create the posters for their events. Yeah, how that happened, hell if I know. I think it's in part that I listen well, I respect the young folks coming up -- I'm not sort of back in the day type. Yeah, I'm always open, open to fresh politics. I think that's probably why I have no fear or experience with writer's block -- or artist block in my case. I think the reason for that is the work I do is in direct relation to all kinds of organizing communities, so that I'm always getting fresh inspiration and perspective coming up from like struggles. I think what artists lose is perspective. And, of course, perspective by definition is seeing something from two points, if you have two eyes. Seeing it from many points I think is always a way to keep a fresh angle on things. MJ: In your view, what are the most important struggles going on right now, here in Minneapolis? Or where do the ones that really make a claim on your loyalty and your passion and your attention? RLM: Well, there's important and important, I mean there are things that rise to the fore because they really galvanize and excite people. And there's those that are seeds that are important because of what the represent, even though they may not be shaking the earth right now. I do everything I can to support anti-scientist organizing, as a progressive Jew, it's important to me. I think that issues around the power, culture and role of the police in the United States is strategically very important. So I do what I can to support, instigate, respond, and write about that kind of thing. Writing is another dimension of my political activism. MJ: What kind of writing? RLM: Mostly strategic analyses -- kind of looking at -- it's a similar approach to my art. My art I describe as medicinal art, and it involves, basically medicinal in the sense that it responds to a diagnosis. So that when I work with a union, a community, whoever it is, an organization, a group, the question I ask myself is: What is keeping this group of people from feeling powerful and from acting on that power? Not what kind of external pressures, but what kind of internal dynamics. So it's an issue of where does someone like me who's not of that community help put the acupuncture needle in the form of a message, a story, that will help free up that energy. And it's different in each case. In the labor movement, largely what's blocking people from moving forward of fear. It's kind of the culture of the workplace, and it's different in different settings. So, I look in strategic thinking, too, about what is it that's keeping people from actually making a difference. Why is the political left in the United States so pathetic compared to other countries? What are the historical reasons that keep people thinking very narrow, and with the repetitive mantra of our own powerlessness, and continuing to act accordingly? MJ: And so as an intervention, as a kind of, well a medicinal intervention, is visual art, is there something uniquely powerful about that medium for that kind of work, or is that just where your talent happens to be? RLM: I think it's what I was drawn to. I think that it's a medium who's potential hasn't been fully explored within activism. I'm not trying to sort of say, Hey, I'm the only cool artist doing this kind of work. I think there's a lot of things out there. But I think that it has a lot of latent power. And it just happens to be what I do. I think there's powerful ways to use all kinds of storytelling. So when I do work with union organizers, for example, on how to use creativity and art and rank and file mischief, we do a lot of brainstorming about what can be effective in a particular setting, and it's not always about visual. Sometimes that's not even the most appropriate tool to use. I mean yes, it does have some unique aspects, but so do all the other tools. So the question is finding the right fit. MJ: Right. So is music part of that? I mean I'm looking around your studio. I immediately see Lead Belly and Makeba. So, is that part of one big kind of cultural political tapestry? RLM: Absolutely. And it works differently. I mean I don't perform a poster more than once, right? Like a songwriter or a singer can perform a song, a lot to different people. But my poster travels to places and it remains there, continuing to sing from the walls of places for years and years. It can carry a story to places I'll never go. So there's real differences in how each of these art forms -- a mural tells a story on the street and will reach people who may never see one of my posters. But it remains on that street, it remains-- MJ: Have you been involved in that kind of community art project? RLM: No. My daughter's doing murals now. MJ: I've noticed quite a few murals around the city as I've been driving around. RLM: There's some great murals here, sure. So, yes, the music, the theatre, they're all a range of tools, and they all have their own ways of traveling. I love music and so it's something that I like to -- it's a piggyback, just like the musical movements in Latin America help popularize poetry by taking the work of the national poets and setting it to music. I do that with poetry, with song -- there's ways in which these things travel well together. In fact, I've realized only recently that in some ways I approach my art as a songwriter. Each one has to create its own little story world of its own to be effective, each piece of work. MJ: How do you recognize when, to stay with the musical metaphor, when you're striking the right chord? How do you that you are playing the tune that needs to be played at that moment? RLM: Well, sometimes because people tell me. I mean the work is -- sometimes I generate it myself, sometimes it's generated through organizations or activists coming to me -- there's this constant dialogue going on. And the deeper my relationship with any constituency, the more likely it is that if I just come up with something that works for me, I know it'll work for them. So a lot of what my experience has to do with building relationships. I made a poster a couple of days after Hurricane Katrina hit that I couldn't sleep until I made it, and I knew that my experience in poor people's communities, African American, Latino, Native and such, throughout the country was such that I felt confident that this is going to work for them. And it did and it was taken up and used in a whole variety of ways throughout the Katrina diaspora and in New Orleans. And then I followed that up with an organizing poster that I did in dialogue with an organization on the ground in New Orleans. So there's all these different ways of doing it. So part of it is simply that my knowledge of working deeply with communities that I've come to know, some of that skill is transferable to communities that I don't know as well. And then there's just an experimental give and take. I ask people the things I really need to know. And otherwise I just experiment. So, there's some things and I've done that are in response to movements. Since I'm not given grants or anything, just to survive in a capitalist economy, I can't spend all my time doing things on issues that I love but that nobody's organizing around, because there has to be constituency for it. So a lot of time is -- and I've done posters that are before their time in terms of movement stuff, and they just sit around until maybe five years later. MJ: What would be an example of that? RLM: Well, at Northland we had a whole series that we had done around immigrant rights. I actually was on vacation -- my family and I went to Mexico. And the collective had just decided to take like eight or ten designs off of our website because they just weren't selling, and that's when the shit hit the fan. You had these massive-- MJ: In 2005, right, yeah, yeah. RLM: Yes. 100,000 people marching in the streets in different cities around immigrant rights reform. All those things went right back on the website. But that would be an example. And so we really kind of learned how to say OK, this is a great idea-- MJ: But it has to wait. RLM: And that's part of what the collective was for was to tell me no, don't do that, Ricardo. MJ: How big was the collective? RLM: It varied over the years from maybe 8 or 10 at its height, to maybe three or four. There were a few years when it was just me and one or two others where we really were in bad shape. The winters we went through without any heat in the building. So those are some examples. And then there's some that, nonetheless, feel important to do specifically because there is no movement. And these are kind of, I call the water in the desert posters. The affirmation for people who are under a lot of pressure and a lot of isolation, and having the recognition can be useful. So that there's a poster that is a recognition and a tribute to prostitutes who have died on the job through disease or violence or whatever. It's not anything about kind of the politics of legalization or not or any of that stuff, but the slogan, the lead slogan is "Nobody is disposable." So it's just a way of saying everyone has dignity. MJ: Let's recognize. RLM: It's a recognition, and it's a recognition to a constituency who aren't going to be the folks buying the poster. They don't either have the money or the walls to put it on or the stability. But that becomes visible through front line social service agencies, educational places, through the folks who work with those populations. So each way -- I mean a lot of the work that Northland did and that I do is thinking: this particular movement, how is it structured. The labor movement has particular nodes where people have budgets, where there's a certain hierarchy, certain places where, if you create buttons or something, they're used as an organizational tool, organizing tool, so that they might want 500, 1,000 to use in a particular campaign. The environmental movement is on the one hand a hierarchical mainstream one, but a very horizontal environmental justice movement that's local, little money, and these things are used either for fundraising or for individual identity statements. But you won't find a group using 500 buttons and they all show up in the same place wearing them. So the religious institutions, again, hierarchical. So there's all these ways of kind of understanding the structure of struggle, non-profits, grassroots groups, and the differences between them politically. MJ: How much do you find yourself responding to national politics or national events in your work? Is that a constant, or is there an ebb and flow? RLM: There's definitely an ebb and flow. And no particular pattern, because it depends partly on the nature of who is responding to national events. MJ: Right. Well, you used the word desert a minute ago, I immediately was thinking of the Bush years and how bleak that was for most people on the left. I'm wondering how did your work respond to that horrific eight years in American life? RLM: Well, it really varied quite a bit even within those years, because there was different sorts of moments of crisis, financial -- the ebb and flow of the economy, for example, that you can't predict, I've discovered. If there's an economic downturn, for example, the labor movement sometimes responds to that by rolling over and making a lot of concessions and going into a deep funk, and sometimes they respond by fighting back. Sometimes that fight back comes from the grassroots, despite the resistance of the hierarchy. I'm sure Peter could give you an earful about that. Sometimes the entire movement has to respond to something. Some years they put all of their resources into political campaigns and Democratic party organizing. Sometimes it's available for organizing campaigns. When John Sweeney came into office in the AFL-CIO, that give a green light to organizing, even though what his administration was doing was largely ineffective, it gave legitimacy to people throughout the locals who wanted to organize. All of a sudden I'm creating things, organizing, doing stuff for people. Another thing that affects my relationship to that movement is that when I started doing this, my main constituency was in labor with these rank and file hotheads. Now, over the years, some of them have become presidents of unions or they've spread out through the labor movement. The first catalogs we put out, a lot of union officers would look in it, see there was some labor stuff, then see that there was also a poster about Che Guevara and it would go right into the trash can. After the wars in Central America with Ed Asner and other folks in the labor movement really kind of forcing the issue and breaking the Cold War unity of foreign policy, union leaders would look at that and say, OK, well, I just won't pay attention to these, but these ones are really useful to organizing, and have opened up the receptivity to us. It's been very complex -- it's not just one answer to that. I mean clearly, we were responding to the people who were organizing, because they're the ones who would come to us, and they were a lot of movements that were doing that. But as far as I'm concerned, the Clinton years were just as bleak. They were, in some ways, bleaker because the left liberal progressives rolled over to have their bellies rubbed. So that Al Gore with his environmental credibility, could push through opening up of virgin forests, oil explorations -- things that a Republican would have had a harder time doing. And that's one of the things that we always decided not to get engaged in is politician-specific. MJ: Right. So, I was curious about Obama. RLM: Yeah, well we'll get to that in a minute. But always, we would focus on issues and the issues that we felt the campaigns should be dealing with, whether they were or not to kind of keep folks -- we did that in the Obama campaign. As people at that shop, we also did silk screening and custom work so that if a union or group came to us with custom work, that's fine. That's not necessarily us putting out something that we're going to distribute. MJ: Just to stay with Al Gore for a second. So, do you see him doing penance now? How do you understand his environmental politics over 15 years? RLM: Well, I think that he's gotten religion around global warming -- he's realized it's a real thing. I mean he's very much tied to oil wealth himself, and he has some sense that capitalism can be better managed with sort of a long-term vision. I think that, like most of these politicians, if you were ever to be in the White House again, his policies wouldn't reflect very far. The White House is not really a very powerful place to be in terms of setting policy. It's more a place, it's an administrative office and a public relations office. But policy is set way above that pay grade. It's the same thing with Jimmy Carter that he can do nice things as a private citizen, but he did some pretty horrific things as a president. I think it's not simply a question of maturation. I think that doing those things would start making sense to him again if he were ever in the White House. One of the advantages that I feel I have over a president is daily national security briefings. They get them, I don't. And if you get those kinds of briefings, a) you start to believe the framework, and b) it's against the law to check the facts. If you go and try to bounce them off of other people who are knowledgeable in the field, you're violating national security law. So it creates this small world of understanding-- MJ: A vacuum. RLM: It's a vacuum where you look at that this means this crisis, this needs to be stopped in these ways. And then it seems to make total sense from in there. MJ: So, based on what you've just said, your take on Obama is probably quite different than many. Or maybe more people have joined you over the last year, but certainly there was a kind of jubilation a year ago. Did you share in that at all? Or what was your sense of that? RLM: I was fascinated by it. I didn't share in it, except that -- one thing that I seem to be able to do that's not very -- it's not a common skill, I guess, is to be able to see the difference between functional and symbolic victories. Kamau Marcharia, an organizer in South Carolina, has pointed out in a different context that the people who force open a door are not very often the ones who get to walk through it. Obama walked through a door that was forced open by revolutionary visionaries. That doesn't make him one. Even people like Jesse Jackson, famously crying at the inauguration, were from a generation of what I call militant reformers who came in after the passing of Dr. King's revolutionary visionary leadership -- so it was a different dynamic. So, I think it was very important in many ways, the symbolic victory of Obama walking through those doors, and of him walking through those doors having electrified the grassroots with some extremely radical-sounding talk. It was the talk in the primaries that was all about a real profound change of direction that got people very excited. My approach is much more laid back. It's sort of OK, the standard questions that I would ask is where is power located at this point, where is it flowing? Who is this guy and what's his track record? And are there any indications that he is likely to change that trajectory? When I looked at where power is, it to me seemed clearly it wasn't in the White House. The things he was talking weren't within his power to do around free trade. And I wrote at the time, before the elections, that if you want to know what's going to happen, read the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, the Rand Corporation, the Council on Foreign Relations, don't listen to the speeches of the candidates. I said without cynicism, but just sort of put it on the line that if Obama's elected, no matter what he's saying now, no, there won't be a re-negotiation of fair trade, of free trade. His commitment to Afghanistan means these social programs aren't going to get any funding, because the money will get sucked into an expanding war that will move into Pakistan and possibly west Central Asia. That what we can expect to get from him are invitations to listening sessions at the White House, and some progress on issues that the corporate elite doesn't care about because it doesn't affect their finances. And those are euphemistically called social issues. Those don't affect finances and so that's what the parties get to fight over. So that's kind of my perspective. So, nothing has particularly surprised me. I mean, I'm not saying that I was prescient and I could see that the financial crisis could hit or anything like that, that's not what I'm saying. But in terms of actual policies, it's depressingly what I wrote back in the summer before the election. MJ: Is that endemic under capitalism or at least late capitalism? Or was there a time where there was more space for meaningful things to happen in the White House? RLM: I think the space was created by divisions, and if I can use sort of class analysis divisions, within the ruling class. When they're divided on things, that opens a real space for debate. Sometimes that debate can get out of hand -- that happened with the war in Vietnam. You see real divisions when -- the thing is that we live in a time when capital is really pretty united politically. So we just don't see much space for that. The piece that I'm writing now is kind of looking at in part of what that means for the political parties, which I find is real interesting. That the Republicans are basically a coalition right now between a sector of the elite -- are we doing OK? -- a sector of the elite, and kind of a conservative grassroots movement -- the Christian, right, the Tea Partists, people like that. MJ: I want to come back to them because they're fascinating. RLM: They're interesting. OK, the Democrats are offering a coalition of sort of a left liberal alliance between the elite and will fund both parties, the same folks, and the unions, communities of color, and so forth. When the real difference between the two, and that's what I'm writing about now, is that the Conservative movement, their demands, what they get, is moving forward on their patriarchal and racial reactionary moral issues, and some financial issues. But none of those adversely affect corporate interests. And some of them are-- for the Democrats, their constituency, if their aspirations were to be met, that would actually cost a lot of money. It would cause a major transfer of wealth. The elite is not in a giving mood. So that means the Democrats are in this fascinating and unenviable position that they can't deliver on any promises that have any real substance to them. And the only reason they're in office is that the Bush-Cheney people were so reckless, that a section of capitalism said no, we can't put up with that. Obama was offering a government of national unity of sort of the elite wings of both parties governing together. He's totally in shock that the grassroots Republicans wouldn't have anything of it, because it goes against the grain to have an enemy of the people, an enemy of the race in office. So that hasn't worked out too well. But the thing is, it means that the Democrats can basically -- well, I can follow the axiom from Maya Angelou. I love this -- it's famous. She said, "I've discovered that people will never remember what you did, they'll never remember what you said, they'll never remember what you did, but they'll never forget how you made them feel." That was the whole basis of the Obama campaign. So that if you look structurally, the Jesse Jackson campaign, the Shirley Chisholm campaign were not viable because they didn't pass the elite test. Part of that is that they built their campaigns on local movements with real organic leadership. The Obama stayed so clear of any of that. And so he was able to campaign through slogans. I think it's very significant that those slogans struck such a chord. It shows that there's a real constituency for something that's dramatically different. But his history was being a mediocre politician in Illinois, he was taken under the wing of a Democratic Party king maker who determined to make him into a senator. His first year he steered millions of dollars back to that guy's district. He was propelled by real estate interests in Chicago, and by the big players on Wall Street, the financial giants, which financed his national campaign. He's basically like a whole generation of new Democrats who came up under Clinton. There was nothing, other than his rhetoric, to give people cause to think differently. As a cultural phenomenon that was really different. The only thing that appalls me is that the left intelligentsia didn't ask those three questions that I mentioned. I think that means that they'll probably not do much better next time. If Obama phenomenon runs its course, it means that all that that the Democrats have to do is run a lesbian for office, maybe a Native American, and everyone will be all about whose turn it is, like they were between Clinton and Obama. And saying that we're really willing to settle for shiny beads at a time when there's really major issues at stake. Follow the money. $100 million went to support the people of Haiti. The first round of bank bailout, $18.4 billion went into bonuses. Just imagine what would happen if those were reversed. But no Democrat's ever going to suggest that. So, yeah, I mean my sense is that people's sense of -- there's a historical sense of powerlessness among activists in this country. Well, going back at least 40 years anyway, 40 or 50 years. And that means that you only look at the realms in which you feel powerful, and that's the realm in which you act. A lot of the strata of the left did not feel powerful on a global or national level or a systemic level. So they only look in the realm where they feel they can affect something. One of the principles that I operate by is that if you look at your opponent patiently, they will always tell you where they're vulnerable. And if you look at your constituencies, they'll always tell you how to organize them. So there's a lot of simple rules that I've learned through kind of the listening mode of what I do for cultural work. My real training was as a hitchhiker in listening. But it means that all the resources going in -- there's massive resources going in to keeping the black population in jail. Most of the folks haven't committed anything that's worthy of being called a crime. And the next large repressive apparatus we have is directed against immigrants. The two populations who, because of their size and histories, could really pose a political threat, and they're tied up in knots. That tells me that's one of the vulnerable points in the system. But you have to feel powerful, you have to feel, I can affect this in order to even start noticing where the levers are, otherwise you don't think there are any, you don't bother. We don't bother looking at how to change the sun's orbit. That's in a whole other universe that's beyond our reach. And a lot of people who think of themselves as radicals think that way about the social structure that they're fighting, that it's really profoundly not changeable. So that's my work, finding the metaphors to shake loose the imagination. MJ: So, taking the two struggles that you just mentioned, the kind of prison/industrial complex on the one hand, and the anti-immigrant apparatus on the other. What are the kinds of interventions that you see as both possible and meaningful from your studio? I mean how do you think about those enormous problems? RLM: Well, first of all, I think in terms of preparing the soil, rather than planting seeds. As a gardener, you have to have the soil good, or even the best seeds aren't going to grow. We're always planting great seeds, the best, in soil that's very hostile and very dry and doesn't have any fertilizer. The right wing spends all its time preparing the soil. So that while the left is good at asking the question what is possible right now to achieve, given the current balance of power, they're always asking how do we shift the balance of power. So that in order to answer your questions, part of it is about how to deal with these particular areas, and part of is about how do we structure those struggles in a way that's going to affect the overall story, because that's what's going to move things forward. Even poor leadership and lousy tactics, if the conditions are favorable, you can win some significant victories. But brilliant leadership is still going to have a hard time if the whole ground is tilted against you. So part of it is how do we use these struggles to affect consciousness? One of it is legitimizing the people on the margins. For example, imagine hearing a Democratic politician saying -- are you running out of time here? MJ: No, I'm fine. RLM: Imagine hearing a Democratic politician saying, most of the folks in prison right now never should have been put there and should be released. Or if capital can flow unhampered across borders, working people should have that right too. It's never going to happen. It would be structurally impossible for the reasons I've given. So that basically what we need to have is an independent poll on the political spectrum that's willing to say these things. That these people -- you know, there's not a question of these people are the problem and there's different ways to tinker with them, which is what the Republicans and Democrats do. We say these people are the solution and the prime constituency that needs to be organized to shift power. So part of it is the language that we use in organizing. And part of it is a struggle over legitimacy. For example, I mean if you're imaginative there's marvelous things you can do. Like on a state level, state or city level we could introduce legislation that says -- we could call it the Integrity and Policing Bill of 2010 -- that says that any member, employee or contractor, of the police or the city attorneys, the prosecuting agencies, the repressive agencies, who falsifies evidence, withholds relevant evidence, or suborns perjury or commits perjury with the goal of convicting somebody, if found guilty, will serve the sentence that person was up for. With the one exception that if it was an execution, then they'll be commuted to life. If it was a misdemeanor, then a misdemeanor, an enhanced misdemeanor they get to serve for. And we'd invite the Police Patrolman's Association to support us on this, because it will weed out the bad apples, right? That's their rhetoric. So, you put a bill out like that, which is impossible to support and impossible to oppose. It's a devil's choice. And my philosophy is that the enemy is put there in order to assist us. And my job, our job is to help make it easy for them to do our work -- to put them in position where no matter what they do, it benefits us. The Shah of Iran was in that position toward the end of his regime. He was on such the defensive that he had to keep letting people out of prison and opening up free press, which only made the movement stronger and then he had to crack down again, which only made the movement stronger so he had to open up again. That's the kind of position you want to put them in. Likewise, on a Federal level. Anyone who creates -- engineers false information in order to put the United States into a state of war or covert conflict against other people, states or non-state actors in the world through basically lying in one form or another, is guilty of a crime equivalent to treason, and subject to the penalties that apply to treason. Introduce that in Congress and nobody can support, very few would have the courage to support it because it exposes the real game, no one can do that. But no one can oppose it either at face value. If you use the resources that are available -- the Black press, the Latino press, the real media that's not corporate controlled, then you can play -- basically, it's messing with their heads. It's cultural warfare which we don't do and the other side does. So, it doesn't answer your question specifically. But one thing I would say, and this is in one of the pieces -- the piece I wrote before the election, I gave an example about immigration. Say what do we want to say about immigration. One of the things, if we want to change the story, instead of bad people breaking the law to steal our jobs, say immigration is about their economy being destroyed by our corporations, so they've got to go somewhere. So, one thing you could do is create a flotilla of boats and blockade the Mississippi at a time when barges carrying genetically engineered corn from the Midwest being exported to Mexico to undermine the farmers markets there, which is causing all this immigration. It's very dramatic, the police would have to be called in, which exposes their relation to it. It would be fascinating to farmers who are also victims. You could organize students as a way to participate in conferentative information, and it would be headline news all over Latin America, which is a significant thing to perceptions internationally of what people are about here. So anyway, there's a lot of toys at our disposal. But you have to have some courage, because the bargain now is that if all we do is intervene in ways that manage injustice instead of challenging it, they're not going to do anything very mean to us. That's the deal. That's what the non-profits are about. They don't fight oppression, they mitigate it, they try to limit its impact, and they essentially administer it-- or manage it more than administer it, I don't want to be too harsh. And a lot of the organizers, some in the National Organizers' Alliance, a lot of the organizers who work for those groups are frustrated because they can only go so far before they're blocked. There's no funding in asking the big questions. MJ: It's always reformist at best. RLM: But the idea is, you know, it's just like in the late '60s, early '70s, people had this fantasy that there's about to be revolution, right? It was based on looking at the surface, not what was beneath the surface. Now the fantasy is that the basic structure as it is, always was, always will be, it's all stability. As far as I'm concerned it's the same mistake. It's looking at the surface and not at the processes under the surface, and not looking at where everybody's strengths and vulnerabilities are. I think that always tells a different story than the superficial one. Like you were talking about the Tea Party people. This morning I was writing -- I write in coffee houses before I come to work in the morning. I was giving an example about the Black Panther Party in Chicago when they formed the Rainbow Coalition -- you're familiar with the Young Lords Organization and the Young Patriots. The Young Patriots where these white kids from the South whose parents had moved up from the South. They wore Confederate flags on their jackets, they had uncles and sisters and brothers still in South Carolina, Alabama, and so forth who were members of the Klan. I mean this was hard core. And the Panthers courted them, and went to their hearings. When they had court hearings, went to visit them in their schools. Helped when their kids were in trouble, slept on their couches. Built this relationship because instead of looking at them and saying these people are hard core, racist, mother fuckers, and they're always going to be our enemy, they looked at what is the underlying structures of power? How are they getting screwed that they just don't see? How have they been tricked into opposing us? There are other people who oppose us because it's really in their interests. That's for their enemy. Everybody who's screaming and shooting at us is not necessarily our enemy. And they were just so brilliant under the harsh conditions that they faced in the Chicago ghetto to say this is what we need to do. They created an alliance with -- it counted one of the Panthers saying these guys would die for me. So that's part of what you gain from looking at power, following the currents and the streams of power, and the tectonic plates that are shifting under the surface. You get to see things that are just missing if you're looking at the superficial evidence. MJ: So, in that model of kind of thinking things through, what is the potential that might be made of this fledgling movement of so-called Tea Partiers. Because some of the rhetoric you can definitely see is being kind of where the right and the left meet, or might. And Libertarianism has always kind of been that way, or at least there's been a dimension of it that's been that way. So, is this a workable moment if one takes an imaginative approach, like the one that you're describing in Chicago? RLM: Yeah, I mean one thing to be realistic about is that what the Panthers were doing is creating those ties from a position of their own strength. They had a movement, they had credibility, they had deep roots in the community, and that meant that they had some power. And from that they could build an alliance. If you try to build an alliance without that power, then you have to do what the Democrats do is they shift their message to reach the swing voters, the white suburbanites or the right wing. So they're trying to go and meet them half way, rather than creating an alternative poll to attract them. In union organizing, when you go into a shop, you don't try to talk to the most rabid anti-union worker there into supporting the union, on the theory that that's going to bring a lot of people with him or with her. You create a momentum out of the people who are closest to you and you have a lot of fun, you attract some more people, and you create a gravitational pull, so that the wavering people become interested, the hostile people become wavering, and the extreme people either become isolated or they move into the-- MJ: But you're changing the shape of the circle. RLM: You're changing the whole dynamic. Now, in this case, what I would say is that if you talk about sort of advantages and disadvantages, one of our strategic advantages is on the ideological front. Because what I would organize around, if it were up to me, I'd say, OK, this is a campaign -- it's basically a back to basics campaign. To say that the things that we were taught when we were little kids are viable between people, between adults, between communities, and between nations on the international scale. Basically, share with other people, no one gets seconds until everyone has had firsts, don't take stuff that isn't yours, clean up your own messes -- you know, we could come up with a few others. And one of the reasons I think that's so powerful is that everyone can relate to it, and everyone in their heart wants to believe that. If you talk to a right-winger they'll say, man, I wish that that were true. I wish I could believe that, but it's just naive, it's just not true. There's no one in the public sphere legitimizing that position and saying I'm not going to back down -- this is actually the way the world works and the way the world can work. It's very appealing to people. And in fact, speaks to some of the right wing wishes and desires. And if you look at Rush Limbaugh, people like Glenn Beck, here we have Katherine Kersten -- I don't know if you know her. She's sort of the local version of them. Much of what they spend their time doing is convincing people that those rules only apply to a limited group of people, and they're creating the borders to tell us what the limits are. And that these people outside there, for these different reasons, these basic rules that we all want to apply to other human beings, don't apply to them. That's all they're doing. That's a weakness because things that are very deep-rooted morals, it's easier to organize if you're supporting people's deepest aspirations than if you're fighting against them. It takes a lot of resources to make people believe lies, more than to make people believe truth. The problem is they have a lot more resources. MJ: Well, and there's a deep history, too. The kind of barriers that are being kind of marked out and policed by someone like Glenn Beck, are barriers that run centuries deep in the political culture. So, there is a kind of impetus already there. RLM: But the thing is that the countervailing traditions also run deep, and as deep. But part of the problem is that those are obscured by history, by the way history is taught. So that there's these remarkable histories of solidarity and interracial solidarity across all of these boundaries that are just as real. Just as the impulse toward independence and the impulse toward cooperation are both just as real. No society, whether it's fascist, socialist, liberal, or anything, can operate unless it finds some ways to speak to both of those aspirations and people. MJ: So, you know, I want to go back -- it's been several minutes now since you mentioned this -- but you were talking about the left planting seeds and the right preparing the ground, which is an analysis that I think is really powerful and I think it's mostly right, and I think it helps explain why we're where we are. But it does raise the question, why, or how is it that Bush and Cheney got so reckless? I mean couldn't they have ruled forever because of the way they had prepared the ground, or because of the way the ground was prepared for them? RLM: That's a good question. I don't know that I know the answer. My impulse is to say that it's explained by their vulnerabilities. That they saw an opportunity basically to instill a fascist world order -- or at least the fascist national order and imperial world order. The closest thing I can come to understanding it is to look at a study that I heard about a couple of years ago of people's driving habits. And they had people doing simulations -- not real cars, but simulations in little sports cars -- are you familiar with this? MJ: No. RLM: In mid-sized cars, in SUVs, and in Humvees. And they found out that the smaller the vehicle, the more careful the driver, and the more aware they were of their surroundings. The person in the Humvee had this feeling that they were so invulnerable that different variations in the road, in the atmosphere outside didn't matter -- they could run over a Toyota and not even feel a bump. If you're on a bicycle, your survival depends on just a sharp awareness of everything. So, when they rolled into Iraq, it was the idea that we could just roll in here with a Humvee, it will clear away everything that's there and we can create whatever we want. The Iraqis who resisted them, all across the spectrum, whoever they were, did so with an intimate knowledge of every nuance of the differences in the soil, in levels of the ground, in the people, in these layers of cultural history. So, I wrote a piece a few months after the invasion saying basically the opening moves -- Congress had just appropriated $87 million, the first money that congress appropriated. And I said that that money is essentially going to be used to obscure the fact that the U.S. has lost the war in Iraq, and they've lost it because they've come in here thinking they're driving a Humvee, or doing monocropping agribiz, which means you don't have to be aware of the local histories and so forth. The raids that they did that first summer, driving people out of their houses, has guaranteed that from now on it's simply a question of how high is the price in lives going to be before they accept that they've been defeated? The problem is that I keep doing these things and I don't feel like a prophet, I don't feel like a genius. I feel like this stuff is simply a question of looking at some history and looking at some patterns of how power is ruled, and what motivates power. It's like I live with metaphors. It's like you look at the movements of planets and the wobbles in their orbits will tell you that there's another planet out there. You can't see, but you can tell. The invisible planet to us is the fact that, yes, Virginia, there is a ruling class. If you look at how Obama has behaved in office without being aware that that planet is there, it makes no sense. You're confused, you're depressed, you're angry, and you keep sending letters to Obama trying to say, oh, but you need to look at this and look at that, and writing articles in The Nation saying Obama must do this now in order to defend the Obama agenda, which is some fantasy concocted by liberals. And the thing is that for me saying these things is not disempowering or cynical or anything, to me it's very exciting because it says OK, if we understand where these levers are, they're really -- we're looking at the behavior of a system that knows that it's in very deep crisis, knows that it's on the defensive globally, knows that its economy is in a shambles and is rebuilding on the same basis of what just caused it to almost collapse. And frankly, a group of very poor people defaulting on their mortgages almost brought down the world global system without even trying. Think what we could do if we were simply deliberate. I think it's a pathology of Americanos to always feel a sense of deficit that we're powerless, we don't have much. We have so much fucking resource at our fingertips that people in other countries, who are really mounting a strong resistance, would just die for. But we don't see it. We think that we're up against some immutable, powerful force. And the thing is that the alliances at our disposal make us pretty powerful. Polls shows that we have the American people behind so many issues about war, peace. And the fact that 40% of the people would say that they thought socialism would work better than capitalism, even though they don't know what the hell it is -- all they've heard is bad things for years -- it tells us something. But you have to -- to me, organizing is doing what the right wing did. After Goldwater was defeated, and the liberals were running the world, and the left was on the rise, they didn't say, well, how should we make ourselves seem more liberal so that people will come to us? They said no, how do we articulate a real alternative and organize around that pure alternative and attract people to that vision. Look where it got them. Whereas the left just trots along behind the liberals saying oh, my God, if we don't support these people, we're going to have the Republicans again. And the Republicans keep shifting to the right, the liberals shift to the right. I think Nixon was our last liberal president. MJ: There's a great Bob Herbert piece about that a while back. I think it was actually during the campaign. But pointing out that Nixon's health care program was to the left of anything that was being proposed by the Democrats. RLM: He gave us the Environmental Protection Agency, he opened to China, even though that was mostly to crush Vietnam. But yeah, Head Start. What's the difference? There were movements in the street, duh. And those movements were asking for the unacceptable. And that made the liberals push for the acceptable. Martin Luther King was very aware that he was able to get the ear of the people in power, because Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown and all those others were to left of him making real threatening sounds. Even if you believe wholeheartedly in Obama being the incarnation of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, which I think is a silly fantasy, you still should be able to recognize that he can't do anything unless there's somebody to his left demanding things that are just so radical that-- MJ: Which goes back to-- RLM: --would give him the heebie jeebies. MJ: --your initial point about the difference between the left here and the left in most other countries anywhere in the world, is that elsewhere there's a deeper understanding of how the whole spectrum kind of is in operation, in concert in some way or another. RLM: Yeah. Things work for a reason. There's that way, it's not all sort of personality. The thing is that, it was just so appalling to me, is that people on the left who their self-image suggests that they would have a clearer analysis -- not that they supported Obama, because that can be a tactical decision -- but that they argued against looking at the man behind the curtain. They argued against making any demands. The right is never shy about making demands on their people and holding them accountable, and dropping them if they-- But there's this sense of we really don't have any cards in our deck, really led them to argue vociferously that no, we must not ask for anything. We've got to let him sneak into office pretending to be conservative, and then we can let him blossom and come out of the closet and he'll be able to do all these things that we dream that he's going to do. Which is OK to think that if you don't have the tools to actually look at what's staring in the face in the public record. I don't blame people for having that really deep yearning for that, and therefore, being willing to imagine that if it's put in front of them. But not people who have spent their lives uncovering how power works and how cooptation works, and how public relations work, and all the rest. So anyway, that I find sobering. That's the main piece that I find sobering, is that the left intelligentsia abdicated its responsibility. I see them, they're going to keep doing that. There's going to need to be a new leadership arising, which is what happens when it's called for. If there's no movement, there's not really movement leadership anyway; there are just people who are sort of the pundits for a particular vision. So anyway, that's where I'm coming from. MJ: Well, thank you so much. RLM: I love doing this. It's so much fun. When I work with movements and organizations, I do a lot of stuff around strategy. It doesn't take much to legitimize what people really wish to be true, and to say there's no magic to how power works. MJ: Right. It's all within reach. RLM: Yeah. If we haven't succeeded it's because a) they figured out how to hold on to power, and b) we haven't figured out how to take it away from them. Let's look at both of those. How do they do it, and what have we been doing? I'm not saying it's easy, because the complexity is in the details. The simplicity is in the big picture. But we're always focused on the details. The left is detail-oriented, not large muscle-oriented. What's the Middle East and Palestine about? Big picture: a group of people who got beat up pretty bad came and took stuff that belonged to someone else. And that's the dynamic of -- that's the big picture. Now, the way it's developed, there's a lot of complexities that affect that in positive and negative ways. But you have to be able to look at both. One more metaphor for you, before I let you go. I looked at a website that my partner found a couple of weeks ago about sustainability. It was a local thing and linked to some national thing about all this program about making cities sustainable, climate change and all that. Some of the groups who had signed onto this program had names like Coca-Cola, Walmart, and Royal Dutch Shell. And they're supporting programs that are vital, that are necessary, that are good. The metaphor I came up with for that -- I was at an environmental report PAC -- is that basically it's the equivalent of installing solar panels on the Titanic. In that the same people who are underwriting and paying for this, they're also making sure that the ship doesn't change course. And in fact, continues accelerating. So what that says is not that these are unworthy. I'm not one of those to say -- I don't believe in a distinction between reformist change and systemic change in the sense that one is good and one is bad. But that essentially, I think what that metaphor points out is that you have to be able to keep two things in your mind at the same time. Sure, takes the resources, but that doesn't mean shit if you're still headed for the iceberg. It's not going to melt fast enough to not be there when we get there. You know what I'm saying. MJ: I do. RLM: So, anyway, my point is that it's all about stories, it's all about storytelling. So that's why the work that I do on larger, smaller and intermediate scales with the artwork, it's all of one with the big issues of well, what's the story we're going to tell people. And we've got to have our own voice, our independent voice, to tell that story. MJ: Right. It's really powerful. Well and in the debates that have gone on within education over the last 10 and 20 years, the same people who will deride those of us who think culture is important, all they want to do is tell a different story. They know. They know the power of culture and they prove it in what they do and the stories they tell. RLM: Yeah. And within education, we're in the same sort of stymied thing. I mean one of the things I tried to do to help my son get through high school -- he really, really, really hated it. Him and his friends, was to say, basically, if you think that there are people that are trying to beat down your soul and turn you into automatons, that's true. And other people who seem to be trying to help you and bring out your creativity, that's true too. That's the fundamental conflict that's been going on in the educational system since the get-go. There are people for whom it's been creating powerful, individual citizens, and for those for whom it's been creating people to fit into what the labor market, meaning the private sector, the corporations, want at any given time. Some great quotes about that from 19th century. That's true. And you get to figure out which currents within this storm you're going to ride, because somehow you've got to get through this. Don't do like I did. But yeah, that's part of the issue is making those stories. The system, health care isn't broken, it's crooked. It's a simple concept, but it changes your strategy. MJ: Thank you, again. This has been fantastic. RLM: OK.

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