I AM A PROGRESSIVE, but I’m a lazy one. There’s so much wrong with America, so much to rage against, and the rage itself feels so futile, that I can only stand to absorb before the toxic cocktail of outrage and despair overwhelms me, and I wind up writing about the 50 greatest football names of all time instead of, say, climate change. (That the former is invariably more popular with readers than the latter suggests I am not alone here).
What a pleasure it was, then, to read #NEWSFAIL, the progressive polemic by Citizen Radio’s Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny. Not only does this dynamic duo not flinch from the various problems with the political scene, tackling such issues as women’s rights, climate change, and income inequality, but they manage to weave it all together in a way that makes us see just how interrelated all of this stuff really is. Although they clearly have their agenda, they take great pains to make the book accessible to those who might not agree with them. Oh, and it’s riotously funny—Jamie is a professional comedian, and Allison is no slouch. Unlike, say, the films of Michael Moore, which put down and thus put off the folks on the other side of the aisle, #NEWSFAIL is a book to give your “undecided” friend, your buddy who apologizes for everything Hillary and Barack do, and the dude from high school who voted for Mitt Romney.
Jamie and Allison graciously consented to answer my questions. Here goes:
(Greg Olear): I know the book’s preface, “In Which the Authors Interview Ralph Nader in the Bathtub,” isn’t really about Ralph Nader, per se, but I want to talk about Nader—or rather, the third party dilemma that always crops up in election years.
Now, as we all know, Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election that year. If he simply stayed home, and kept mum about his message of maybe spending less money on the military and more on things like infrastructure, we’d all have been spared Cheney, Rumsfeld, No Child Left Behind, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the time Dubya came this close to destroying the entire world economy. That’s what the Democratic establishment wants us to think, anyway—that Gore losing was the fault of every lefty who voted for Nader, especially in Florida. Never mind that Ohio was rigged, and Bush v. Gore is the sort of bullshit court decision we expect to see in Russia. It was Nader’s fault! His candidacy is unsafe at any speed!
Where do you stand on Nader 2000?
(Jamie Kilstein/Allison Kilkenny): It’s weird that most Americans agree democracy is a good thing, but when it comes time to demonstrate the democratic process, say, by breaking the two-party monopoly stranglehold, suddenly Ralph Nader is history’s greatest monster. Even though Al Gore lost the election. Nader didn’t “steal” it from him. He won those votes by presenting an actual left-wing agenda. Had Gore been smart and embraced some of the elements of Nader’s platform, he might have won. But to pin Al Gore’s fuck-up on Nader is dumb and wrong. Does anyone blame Pat Buchanan for “stealing” votes from Dubya in Florida? Or how about the massive election fraud in Florida? It’s easier to blame a curmudgeon-y old man, lecturing you about universal health care, than to admit our entire voting system is flawed and rigged.
(GO): Gore Vidal once wrote, and I’m paraphrasing, that there are not two parties in the United States, there’s one, the Business Party, with two very similar wings. But what is the alternative? What’s going to happen in 2016 is, Hillary Clinton—who, while more liberal than Mitt Romney or Rand Paul, is less of a liberal than Richard Freaking Nixon—is going to be the Democratic candidate, and a lot of frustrated progressives are going to think really hard about voting for someone like Elizabeth Warren. Do we really have to vote for Hillary? And if not, how can we justify it when Jeb Bush or Rand Paul or—God help us—Rick Perry wins the White House?
(JK/AK): If mainstream Democrats like Hillary Clinton know we’re going to roll over and vote for them because we’re terrified of the prospect of an armed, bespectacled Rick Perry, the Democrats know they’re safe to take those corporate dollars and slide rightward, while the Republicans stray even farther right into whoknowswhereland — secession maybe? (oh wait, Rick already proposed that).
Our entire political system is rotten and rigged in favor of the one percent, so the only shot at meaningful reform is going to come from the bottom up, i.e. grassroots movements that ultimately force the hand of politicians through collective action, or support populist candidates that can compete in the system because they arrive to Washington with a mandate instead of millions of corporate dollars.
(GO): We saw this at work in New York earlier this year, when the wonderfully-named Zephyr Teachout took it to our incumbent governor, the oleaginous Andrew Fracking Cuomo, in the Democratic primary. She won 70% of the vote in Ulster County, where I live. I hope this is part of a grassroots movement like you describe—the winds of change are Zephyr, or somesuch—but the realist in me fears this means nothing other than Cuomo won’t be able to run for president. What do you think?
(JK/AK): The election was huge. Teachout spent $200,000 to Cuomo’s $35 million and Cuomo couldn’t even clear the two-thirds mark. That’s a really big deal, and it’s a clear indication grassroots organizing works. Teachout ran an aggressive campaign that was highly critical of Wall Street and it generated a huge amount of support. Also, Cuomo is just a giant asshole and a lot of people are tired of his bullshit. The results really excited grassroots organizers in NY. We think this election was exactly what activists needed to stir up more support.
(GO): I’ve often wondered how conservatives can run an entire “news” network that consists in the main of rightwing bloviators shouting GOP talking points, but progressives can’t have their own actual news network. Is it that they’re afraid people won’t watch? That all of the sponsors in the country, I mean all of them, are run by Republicans and fear the success of such a network? Or is the audience for such a thing really that puny? I mean, people watched The Newsroom. Wouldn’t they watch an actual show that The Newsroom is supposed to be about? Why doesn’t Sean Eldridge or George Soros or somebody bankroll Citizen Television?
(JK/AK): Progressives, by default, advocate on behalf of the people (or, in theory, they should be doing this), which oftentimes means strongly regulating businesses and demanding the uber-rich be taxed at sane rates. News networks rely on corporate advertisers, who aren’t thrilled by that message.
Essentially, any Citizen Television would have to be run as a non-profit, not a business, and most business people aren’t in love with the idea of pouring a ton of time and money into a project that isn’t ever going to turn a profit.
That’s why alternative media like Citizen Radio is really important because our listeners support us, so we can say the stuff we say without fear of Lockheed Martin yanking their support. Tanya, who works at the record store, sponsors us and she’s cool with our lefty rants.
(GO): I love the section in the book about false equivalency, in which you cite examples of how the whole “fair and balanced” thing is unnecessary most of the time. If Fox News existed during the 1850s, there’d be a lot of “equal time” given to the mudsill theory, and James Henry Hammond would have his own show. Why does this notion of false equivalency persist?
(JK/AK): This answer is related to the previous question. False equivalency persists because oftentimes when anchors claim to be “fair and balanced,” what they mean is they’re voicing a pro-business, pro-war message on behalf of their corporate overlords. Being a Very Serious Newsperson has come to mean hippie-punching because collective action is for the unwashed serfs whereas civilized people talk about carpet-bombing poor brown people from their air-conditioned television studio.
(GO): Why do people watch news at all? Unless there’s something I absolutely have to see, like buildings collapsing or realtime election results, I never watch CNN.
(JK/AK): Most people don’t, and for that reason. The major news networks, for the most part, have been struggling with ratings. Fox News has good ratings because they keep ramping up the terror levels, so their audience is hooked on FN like a drug. “Do you like blonde ladies, tough guys, American flags, beer, and TERROR?! Then don’t turn the channel, PINKO!!”
(GO): Chapter 2, “Get Your Flaming Arrows Ready: Class War and the Media That Mocks Protestors Fighting It,” concerns, among other things, the state of protest in this country. Our media writes stories about how young people don’t give a crap, and when they then go protest, the same media rides them relentlessly. Shit, even Aaron Sorkin made fun of OWS on his show. Given how the police love to beat the shit out of peaceful protestors, as Ferguson is only the most recent example of—and if you waited a bit, the coverage of Ferguson could have been its own chapter in #NEWSFAIL—do you think it’s time to change the nature of protest? Should we be occupying buildings and that sort of thing?
(JK/AK): Occupation of buildings has been happening, and will continue to happen (see: occupy our homes, Rutgers, Cooper Union). The reason OWS received a lot of attention was due to its location (within spitting distance of the financial district) and who it involved: many white (not all, but many), middle/upper-middle-class young people, usually students, buried in debt. These kids are supposed to be “the future,” so when they started protesting, the media took notice. Poor people of color have been organizing and protesting forever, but this sort of thing just wasn’t supposed to happen in this place with these people.
The worse inequality gets, and the more people it involves, we’ll see more actions of this nature. It will be harder and harder to cover dumb stories about celebrity babies when there are millions of people in the streets demanding their rights back.
(GO): But Princess Kate is pregnant again! Don’t tell me you’re not a little bit excited for a new royal.
(JK/AK): The only good thing to come out of the royal pregnancy is the Prince George Meets Commoners meme (Google it).
(GO): Your take is on the critique of Occupy Wall Street is great:
The critique most leveled at OWS, too scattered ideologically, is absurd, given there is a lot wrong with the country right now, and if one thinks carefully about the various Occupy slogans, it’s actually quite easy to see how demanding fair wages is tied to reforming capitalism, which is tied to student debt, which is related to the prison reform movement, and ending the War on Drugs, and fighting for taxpayer-funded elections, which is in turn tied to the housing market. Lots of the “little people” are getting squashed by this rapid behemoth named capitalism, and that exploitation has many different facets, but the root cause is always inequality.
Boom! I love that you link capitalism to exploitation. Because the capitalist system is based on two things: exploitation—of workers, resources, and markets; and expansion. Stocks must grow. Markets must grow. Profits must expand. Well, we’re running out of people to exploit, and we’re running out of ways to grow. Then what? The great empires always fall because they get too big to be sustainable, and that’s what will happen with us. What is the alternative to our current earthraping economic system?
(JK/AK): That’s a good question and one we can’t answer on our own, but there’s a kneejerk response to challenging Capitalism that goes something like: “Well, do you want full Communism? Do you want to go tills the fields?! DO YOU???”
Surely there’s a compromise in the middle that looks like a strong, well-funded social safety net and public schools, and strong regulation of businesses with a sane level of taxation on the wealthy so they can only have (sniff) one yacht instead of two. Oh, and maybe a system that stops destroying the earth and abusing poor people of color.
That’s the base compromise, but we’re open to other interpretations.
(GO): I’m impressed that you talked about Palestine at all. That topic is so difficult to even discuss, because the “anti-Semite” label is tossed around so easily, and tends to stick. Why do you think the AIPAC has been so successful?
(JK/AK): Because the Holocaust is a horrific tragedy and people, rightly, are very moved when it’s brought up. However, organizations like AIPAC wield this moment in our collective history in order to abuse and murder people, many of them innocent Palestinian children. As we learn more about this strategy, more people are questioning AIPAC’s motives and those old, tired “anti-Semite,” and “self-loathing Jew” accusations don’t stick as easily as they used to. As a Jew, Jamie has tried to get out of many parking tickets and fist fights by calling the other person anti-Semitic, and it doesn’t work forever. To be honest, Jews should be the most upset because this killing is being done in their names.
(GO): Loved the section on the War on Drugs, especially the part about marijuana. One thing, though: you fail to mention how the War on Drugs is horrible for the environment. We have people coming into the country and setting up shop in the federal lands, to avoid land being confiscated, and they use this virulent pesticide that isn’t legal in the US that kills everything other than the pot plants, and eventually seeps into the land and our drinking water. But by all means, let’s continue the War on Drugs.
(JK/AK): Good point. As you mentioned above with Ferguson, there’s just…so much we wanted to write, but the book would have been a thousand pages long. Maybe in book #2! ASK FOR A BOOK #2. BUY BOOK ONE! TELL OUR PARENTS WE DIDN’T MAKE A MISTAKE!
(GO): Let me be the first to request Book #2, then. Get busy, you two!