Hooked on heroin at 15, in prison making other inmates pay for protection by 18, David Lewis’ personal search for dignity has led to an extraordinary transformation. Today he is president of one of the nation’s most innovative treatment programs aimed at breaking the cycles of addiction and incarceration. What can America’s corrections system learn from this incredible story of human redemption?
Next, Iran may be the next WMD “hotspot,” but what do we know about its people? Get inside the psyche of this 9,000-year-old society as David Brancaccio speaks with author and literary scholar Azar Nafisi who led an underground group in Tehran to study “subversive” Western authors.
But first a look at an upcoming Supreme Court decision that could determine the course of American race relations. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger wrote the admissions policies that are currently under siege at the University of Michigan when he was dean of the university’s law school. He joins Bill to share his thoughts on race, affirmative action, weighted admissions, and what the decision could mean for the future of higher education. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW With Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. Who would ever have imagined that two all-American words like affirmative and action would become words to fight over? But they have divided our country for years now, as code words for the struggle over whether it’s legal to use race as a factor in the admission of students to college.
Next week, affirmative action will once again spark controversy and dissention. The Supreme Court will hand down its decision in two very important cases. The court’s first ruling on college admission since 1978. Both suits were filed by white applicants who claim they were unfairly turned down, while less-qualified blacks and Latinos were accepted.
Both cases involved the same campus. The University of Michigan. And both cases have the same defendant. Gratz versus Bollinger, and Grutter versus Bollinger. The Bollinger in those cases is with me now. Lee Bollinger was President of the University of Michigan when those cases were filed. He’s now President of Columbia University here in New York. Welcome to NOW.
BOLLINGER: Thank you very much.
MOYERS: You once clerked for the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Warren Berger.
BOLLINGER: I did.
MOYERS: What do you think he would think, knowing that you were back up in his court as a defendant?
BOLLINGER: I think he would find it ironic, as I do. But I think he would be on our side in this.
MOYERS: But as you look at the Supreme Court — an ideologically divided Supreme Court — do you think this court is on your side?
BOLLINGER: It’s hard to say at this point, although I’m very hopeful. Obviously, we’ll have to wait and see. We made the best case I think we can.
MOYERS: What is at stake in those two decisions next week?
BOLLINGER: I think what really is at stake is the question of how we as a society will deal with race. It has been part of our history, of course, from the beginning. And we know that when the Constitution was put together, slavery was allowed.
It became, of course, the central issue in the bloodiest battle on American soil, the Civil War. Jim Crow laws were upheld in Plessy vs Ferguson, and it took Brown vs Board of Education to really bring us to the point we are today.
And I think the question really is, will we continue on the course that Brown set, trying to achieve an integrated student, integrated society? Or will we reverse course at this point, as we have at some points in our history?
What is now really at stake is therefore a different constitutional principle. What the plaintiffs really want is an entirely new course of Constitutional law that would forbid completely any consideration of race, ever. And that would be, as I’ve said before, a major change in Constitutional policy.
The truth is, that the enrollment of African-Americans, Hispanic, Native-Americans, in our selective universities and colleges throughout the country, will drop dramatically. And we will have universities that look very much like they did in 1960.
MOYERS: The opponents of affirmative action have said that if the court were to decide in your favor, and against them, they would then go to the states, to try to wage a campaign to pass Constitutional amendments outlawing it at the state level forever.
BOLLINGER: Right. And of course, they’re free to do that. And that’s what happened in California, with Proposition 209 in the mid-1990’s. The Constitution of California was amended to prohibit race as a factor in admissions in public universities.
So, even if the court does say, as I predict or hope it will, that race can be considered, as it has been, it’s still open to legislatures or to individual universities, to decide not to do that.
MOYERS: How do you personally explain that the deep and dogged opposition to affirmative action?
BOLLINGER: Well, I think it’s part of really a larger social agenda, that a number of people have, a number of institutions have, to try to change the course of political and social history that we’ve built up, since really, around the time of the Second World War.
There are many programs that try to address past injustices, try to bring us together as a society, try to help deal with the inequalities and economic wealth, try to deal with educational problems in K through 12. There are many, many programs that we’ve developed to try to address these issues.
It seems to me that affirmative action is one area where people who oppose these programs have decided to focus their efforts. And I think it’s probably their leading hope to try to reverse course on that.
MOYERS: THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION is out with a poll just this week. Let me share it with you. It says that Americans are all for diversity on college campuses. But they don’t believe race-conscious admission policies should be used to achieve that goal. Does that surprise you?
BOLLINGER: First of all, I think any single poll is very difficult to draw any conclusions from on an issue like this. This is extremely complicated. And admissions are complicated. We don’t give credit just for race or ethnicity. We give it for athletic ability, or for the fact that you’ve lived abroad, or an international student. Or you come from different parts of the country.
So, you really need to explain how admissions works to people, I think, before you can ask them, “Is this fair, or is this not fair, to do this particular thing?” So my experience has been, really, that when you do explain it, people understand. And they agree with it. They don’t want to reverse course.
MOYERS: When black students apply to the University of Michigan, they are given points for being black. Isn’t that right?
BOLLINGER: That’s correct. At the undergraduate program, yeah.
MOYERS: But white students don’t get points for being white, do they?
BOLLINGER: That’s correct. Well, they can get points for other things about them.
MOYERS: For being the—
MOYERS: —sons or daughters of alumni.
BOLLINGER: That’s correct.
MOYERS: Coming from northern Michigan—
BOLLINGER: That’s right.
MOYERS: —because you want to promote geographical diversity. That sort of thing.
BOLLINGER: That’s correct.
MOYERS: But do you perceive why white students would think this was unfair, that blacks get points, or Hispanics get points, and they don’t?
BOLLINGER: Well, first of all, I want to say that I think the real issue in the case is not a particular program, using points or not using points. It’s really the fundamental principle. Can you consider race and ethnicity as factors in admissions in order to get an integrated student body?
That’s really the fundamental principle at stake. Very important to keep in mind the following: first of all, you have a total of 150 points that you can get as an applicant. Twenty of those are for various purposes, like the fact that you’re from Michigan, or from a particular part of Michigan. Also race.
The overwhelming majority of the 150 points, around 90 to 110 are really for academic criteria alone. So, this is a small part of the overall set of things that are considered. The other thing is to remember that when you think, “Is it really unfair to give credit, or to give— use as a factor the fact that some— an applicant is African-American,” we also consider other things. Whether you come from Oregon, as I did, or from New Mexico, or from Florida. In order to get a geographically diverse student body.
We also consider whether you’re the child of an alum. And it’s very important to ask the question, if you think you were not admitted because someone else got a special plus factor in their admissions process, why do you single out one group rather than other groups, for that irritation or anger?
MOYERS: You mean, if my child loses his place to an athlete, you need an athlete at the University of Michigan.
BOLLINGER: That’s right.
MOYERS: Am I less likely to protest than if my child loses a place to a black person?
BOLLINGER: That’s right. I mean, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is, why is it that race seems to attract so much attention, and to some extent, hostility in the admissions process, when it’s one of many, many things that are taken into account?
MOYERS: Well, isn’t there a reason for this? I mean, Thurgood Marshall, in the case you referred to, Board versus— Brown versus Board of Education, wrote, “Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and invidious, that a state bound to defend the equal protection of the law, must not invoke them in any public sphere.” He’s not talking about athletics there, or geographical diversity. He’s talking about race. Which is, as you know one of the most powerful, emotional issues in our society.
BOLLINGER: Well, I couldn’t agree more. That using race as consideration in public decision-making is really problematic. And we have to be exceedingly careful about it. But the Supreme Court, including Thurgood Marshall, has never held never held that in fact, race can never under any circumstances be used in public decision-making. So, we have, for example, cases involving redistricting for elections. Where the court has long held that race can be the factor in deciding how to draw electoral districts.
And there are other instances. What the court has done is to set up an exceedingly high burden that the state has to meet, in order to justify any use of race. And what the court held in Bakke was that that justification was met for higher education if you are trying to build a integrated student body. And you use it simply as one factor among many.
MOYERS: And if the court next week should rule that you cannot do that, if the new majority could should take the position that what you’re doing at Michigan and other places is not permissible, are there no other ways to try to achieve the same objective of a diverse student body, an integrated campus?
BOLLINGER: One of the things that’s been impressive to me, in being part of this issue for now six years, really, in the lawsuits is the ease with which so many people have thought “Don’t worry. If you can’t do this, you’ll find some other way to achieve diversity.” Because almost everybody believes that there ought to be racial, ethnic, gender, international, geographic diversity in higher education.
Everybody seems to understand now that having people of a particular kind, everybody basically the same, does not make educational sense. But the fact of the matter is, there is no viable alternative to considering race. That’s the direct, honest, candid way to do it.
MOYERS: You say that affirmative action is practical and efficient. What do you say to the critics who argue that it has resulted in a lowering of the standards in higher education? Because we’re letting people in who are not prepared.
BOLLINGER: Well, very important to begin with the fact that we are talking in any of these universities with the very top students, applicants in the United States. We’re talking about the top ten, 20 percent measured by standard academic criteria. And it’s within that pool of very, very successful and academically talented students that we are selecting our student bodies.
We also, as I’ve indicated before, take special consideration of where you come from in the United States. We want to bring together people from different part of the country… parts of the country. George Washington once proposed a national university. And the reason he wanted it was because he needed— thought that society needed to overcome the natural prejudices that people have for different parts— people from different parts of the country—
MOYERS: But not black slaves.
BOLLINGER: We— that’s right. Exactly. We do that today. We do it with foreign students who we want. We do it with students who have had special life experiences. So, it’s within that very, very successful pool of applicants that we are considering a variety of factors of which race and ethnicity are two.
MOYERS: But here’s the practical problem. I mean, if you take a young man whose mother is white and who’s father is black who applied, how do you define him on the diversity scale? How do you say, “This person fits the diversity model and this person doesn’t?”
BOLLINGER: Right. Well, obviously these are hard, difficult, educational judgments. We make them all the time. I mean, we try to decide whether this applicant from this part of the United States will really contribute something to the class. We ask ourselves whether this immigrant, an immigrant student who came at age 13, had to learn the language and maybe only got C’s and B’s but had incredible motivation and chose a capacity to take advantage of an education we would offer. That’s a student we want. These are difficult judgments.
MOYERS: That’s subjective—
BOLLINGER: They’re subjective ultimately.
MOYERS: President Bush says, “I’m for diversity.” He got a rousing ovation recently when he said, “I’m for diversity, in effect, but I’m against what the University of Michigan is doing.”
BOLLINGER: Well, I mean, I think it’s too bad that the government has weighed in against affirmative action in both cases. You know, the former administration under President Clinton supported the universities, as has, I must say, General Motors, Steelcase, Microsoft, Intel, leading corporations, President Gerald Ford, Secretary Colin Powell. We have the military institutions and individuals supporting, the mainstream American support of this. The desire not to reverse course at this point is deep and profound. The President has taken a different position. I think it’s unfortunate. But that is the position he’s taken.
MOYERS: Does the other side— do the plaintiffs in this case have any point you respect?
BOLLINGER: Well, of course I respect them. I think this is a complicated issue. Those who say, “We need to address the whole set of issues that we’ve identified or talked about and here’s a plan for doing it. And I think it’s a better plan than where we stand at the present.” That is a position I respect and I would be delighted to see. I don’t see it on the other side.
MOYERS: So what do you do next week if the court decides against you?
BOLLINGER: Well, I think we have to step back and face a tragic reality. And I think we’ll have to take a deep look at where this society can go from here. It will not be as easy. It will not be as effective. But the idea of giving up, of course, is not possible.
MOYERS: Lee Bollinger, thank you for joining us on NOW.
BOLLINGER: Thank you.
MOYERS: It’s been famously said that there are no second acts in American life.
It’s even been said Americans don’t believe in redemption and rehabilitation this side of Judgment Day, which could explain why we lock people in prison and throw away the key at a higher rate than any other industrialized nation.
A dozen years ago I met a man who rejects the theology of incorrigible destiny and turned his life around. Ever since he’s been helping others do the same.
David Lewis was featured in a documentary we produced called CIRCLE OF RECOVERY, about some men who were not going to let drugs, alcohol, and prison have the last word in their lives.
Producer Kathleen Hughes went back recently to see how David Lewis is doing. Judge for yourself.
LEWIS: I go to jails all over the country. All over the damn country and I see y’all there everywhere. I saw you in Sing Sing the other day. I saw you in the California Youth Authority the other day. I saw you in the federal prison in Pennsylvania the other day.
HUGHES: David Lewis is used to speaking to a captive audience.
LEWIS: We got to start thinking, man. We got to start thinking about what this system is doing to us.
HUGHES: He travels the country, giving lectures and workshops not only to prisoners, but to social workers, policy makers, academics, and others.
LEWIS: Did I tell y’all I was a drug addict too? I didn’t tell y’all I was a drug addict?
HUGHES: He’s sending them a message that even hardened criminals can change their ways.
LEWIS: I was the kind of drug addict that would steal your dope and then help you look for it, you know. I mean, you check all your pockets and look over here.
HUGHES: That’s David Lewis today. Now take a look at him twelve years ago, when he was just out of prison himself.
LEWIS: All this is kind of, you know, real new to me, getting up going to work in the morning and stuff, you know. It’s kind of really new to me.
HUGHES: We first met him in 1991 when Lewis was 35 years old. He was just getting on his feet, having spent most of his adult life behind bars in some of California’s toughest prisons: Folsom, Soledad and San Quentin.
LEWIS: I used to often wonder, you know, like I might be up this time in the morning, trying to buy dope or something like that or doing something, up all night. And I would kind of always often wonder where were all those people going? Because I would go to prison and come back — do three four, five years or whatever and come back — and they’d still be doing this, you know.
HUGHES: He was managing to earn a few dollars painting houses. It was the first legitimate job he’d ever had.
How David Lewis went from here…to here…
LEWIS: On a daily basis I try not to self destruct.
HUGHES: …is a story of crime, punishment and a kind of resurrection.
LEWIS: I’ve been in prison all my damn life.
HUGHES: But this is more than one man’s tale. David Lewis says he has a model for changing the way America treats its prisoners, moving away from an emphasis on shame, punishment, and the building of ever more jails, toward one of recovery and rehabilitation.
LEWIS: Just one mistake can send you back to where? The bench. My bench is in San Quentin. Sometimes I go there and look at it. Just to make sure that it’s a place that I don’t want to be.
HUGHES: David Lewis was raised in East Palo Alto, an unincorporated, almost forgotten part of California where poverty and unemployment were common.
LEWIS: East Palo Alto, East St. Louis, East New York… For some reason or another, these east places, I don’t know, something happens. Something happens in ’em.
HUGHES: At school, Lewis says, he was a failure. He was dyslexic, and never learned to read. He dropped out in the 10th grade.
LEWIS: But I still had this burning desire to succeed. And the people that I saw that were succeeding that didn’t look like they was going to school were people that was involved with criminal activity.
HUGHES: By the time he was a teenager, Lewis was already hooked on heroin. He committed armed robberies to support his addiction.
LEWIS: I consider myself probably at fifteen having a full blown drug habit. You know, my whole day centered around drugs.
HUGHES: He was behind bars by the time he was 18. In prison he says, he became a leader of one of the most notorious gangs in the California penitentiary system. He ran drugs, practiced extortion, made people pay protection to stay alive.
Prison was his school, says Lewis. Violence the curriculum.
LEWIS: Violence was a positive emotion. Anger was a positive emotion. The angrier you were the more violent you were or attempted to be, the more people kind of like left you alone and stayed a away from you, that kind of thing.
HUGHES: Ironically, it was also in prison where Lewis eventually learned to read.
But when he was finally released from San Quentin in 1989 he immediately went back to his old habits.
Within days he was arrested again. But this time, instead of recommending incarceration, his parole officer got Lewis into a residential drug treatment program. He stayed there for a year.
LEWIS: I want to be maybe someday a husband to some woman…
HUGHES: Not long after leaving treatment, Lewis became involved with a group of men who were all struggling to stay sober—they’d formed what they called a “circle” and met every week to talk about their lives.
LEWIS: Am I ever going to have to share a cell with my son?
HUGHES: In the group he slowly began to admit the damage his addiction had done to other people, especially the son he’d fathered but never raised, David Jr.
LEWIS: I got a son 18 and it hadn’t really dawned on me until tonight how I might have been the cause of maybe him going to penitentiary one day. Soon, probably because he’s got this kid coming. He doesn’t have no job, he never went to school, you know what I’m saying? He’s going to do something, you know. I went by his house the other day and he had a big diamond ring and shit and I said, “Where’d you get this ring, man?” He said, “You ain’t got none, no ring?” And I said, “No,” he say, “I get you one,” you know and it scared the hell out of me. I don’t know what to do, you know. If anybody you know, know anything or have any suggestions or—
TONY, CIRCLE MEMBER: Start hanging out with him. Start doing things with him. I take my son to the show, take him to the Burger King. If he calls me, I talk to him. I didn’t raise him. I was in jail. I was shooting dope.
LEWIS: Gradually and incrementally, the obsession to use drugs started to be lifted. I could walk by people who were selling drugs on the streets, I could walk past liquor stores and things like that.
HUGHES: Lewis was making the transition from junkie criminal to reformer. He began talking to friends and neighbors in East Palo Alto whose lives had also been damaged by drugs and crime. It was 1992, and the town of 23,000 had gained a dubious title: Murder Capital of the Country. News crews rushed in.
CNN REPORTER LINDA JOYCE: Last year, 42 people died violently here. Per capita, that’s more than double Detroit and Washington, D.C. Officials blame poverty, unemployment, gangs and drugs.
HUGHES: Local police turned to the FBI for help. But Lewis and his neighbors believed that more law enforcement wasn’t the answer. In 1993 they formed Free At Last, a drug and alcohol center run by and for the people of East Palo Alto.
Linda Mills is a Professor of Social Work and an Affiliated Professor of Law at New York University. Back in 1993 she worked at the Echoing Green Foundation, one of the first to fund Free At Last.
MILLS: You know, in the past drug treatment was about taking somebody out of their community, putting them in another community, providing them with that treatment. And then re-integrating them. And of course, as soon as they got back all the triggers from what they’d gone through in the past were all there and they go back. And so the idea that this treatment program would happen right there in the community was a radically new idea.
HUGHES: In most of the country prisoners get little more than a few bucks and a bus ticket upon release, according to Todd Clear, Professor of Criminal Justice at New York’s John Jay University.
CLEAR: The classic cases that a guy who’s been out of the community for three years comes back to a community and goes to a shelter. Does not have a job. None of his clothes fit. Doesn’t have money to put down on a car. Can’t establish credit. Doesn’t have a bank card. On and on and on and on. And those kinds of disincentives make it very hard for a person in transition from prison to make it.
HUGHES: Clear says the lack of services — inside prison as well as outside — helps explain the nation’s recidivism rate. It’s estimated that fully two thirds of all prisoners released this year will be re-arrested within three years.
The staff at Free At Last knows those odds well. Nearly half are ex-cons; and at least as many are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Yet all the treatment in the world, they say, won’t help a person who doesn’t have a place to live or a job to go to. So along with drug-and-alcohol counseling, Free at Last offers literacy training, job placement and a myriad of other services.
And it seems to be making a difference. One independent study found that over 60 percent of those who complete Free At Last’s program were clean and sober a year later. Not only that, they were off public assistance and in stable housing.
The organization’s reputation has spread, even inside local prisons.
ATKINS: When I was in prison everybody was talking about Free At Last, Free At Last…around recovery. David Lewis to me, is basically like a savior. I don’t think nobody had the courage to do what he did right here in East Palo Alto. Me? I look at it as, “Man, look where he came from. If he did it, anybody can do it.”
HUGHES: David Lewis is determined to help teach others how to do it.
LEWIS: We see probably about 500 people a day, you know, in various different — I’ll use you all’s words, treatment modalities. Y’all didn’t know I knew that word, huh? Technically, the buzz word is cognitive restructuring through behavior modification— you might want to write it down. Now a lot of time people asks, “What does that mean?” Well, it’s thinking skills.
HUGHES: With some partners, he’s developed a curriculum that provides tools and techniques for people who want to make changes in their lives. On this day he’s working with prisoners in a jail just south of San Francisco.
LEWIS: I’m gonna do a little exercise. Would you participate with me, sir? Now, put your hand up for a minute.
MILLS: Something happens when David Lewis goes in a room with 50 inmates or with 50, you know, formerly incarcerated folks and says, “This is how I did it. This is the step-by-step process that I took.”
LEWIS: Now, I push him, it stimulates him. He doesn’t even have to think before he pushes me back. Y’all got iron in there, man? You damn near killed me. Automatically, automatically, he didn’t even have to think. I pushed and he automatically pushed me back. See that instant gratification of pushing, of getting it off, of satisfying that urge. It feels good to do that. But I have to ask myself the question, “Is the result of my response gonna meet my needs? Not the instant gratification but over time.”
MILLS: In the same way that people were taught to be violent, and were taught to use drugs and were taught to drink alcohol, he teaches them to unlearn those patterns.
LEWIS: But now if I walk away, if I walk away, if I make a decision to do something else that’s not violent, that’s not aggressive, that’s not putting my hands on you I get the opportunity to walk out of this damn jail. And when I get a chance to walk out of this jail I get a chance to go out in the streets and actually try to participate in life on life terms and be the responsible person that men are supposed to be.
HUGHES: Today’s East Palo Alto is no longer the murder capital of America. But it’s not as if the community’s problems have gone away. Lewis can barely walk down the street here without someone asking for help.
LEWIS: What you doing now?
MAN: I didn’t want you to think I wasn’t ready. It’s just that I had to make sure my wife is situated.
HUGHES: This man says he is ready to enter Free at Last’s residential addiction treatment program.
MAN: Now would be the best time, because I’m off work.
LEWIS: I’ll go over there and see what the bed situation is…
HUGHES: Last year a combination of government and corporate grants put Free At Last’s budget at two and a half million dollars. But a weak economy has led to a slash in government funding. And earlier this year, Lewis laid off half of his paid staff.
And as the economy worsens, he is working hard to try and ensure that whatever jobs are created here go to the people living here. To that end, David Lewis makes it his business to keep in touch with the community’s leaders.
LEWIS: This is our banker for Free at Last, and I think we have probably one of the biggest accounts here. A pretty big account. And we try to patronize, you know, business. They just brought this bank into our community. This is the first time they’ve had a bank here in East Palo Alto in I don’t know how many years.
BANKER: Fifteen. By now, it’s, yeah, we were the first bank in fifteen years that was here.
LEWIS: Where is Kathy? I think I robbed the last one. No, I’m just kidding.
HUGHES: David Lewis’ criminal past is well behind him. Still, he knows the people who make the rules are not necessarily ready to forgive him, or to change their approach to crime and punishment.
CLEAR: There’s this kind of assumption that if we just make prison a nasty enough idea, regardless of what’s going on in people’s lives, they will choose to do the things that are necessary to avoid prison. And it just isn’t working.
MILLS: It seems to me that policymakers may not have made the shift yet. But that we have a responsibility to convince them that not only is David Lewis not unique, but that he has a method to teach us about how to move us from what is punishment and shame that hasn’t been successful toward the model of recovery and possibility that can be successful.
HUGHES: Right outside the San Francisco jail where I watched Lewis speak, a new, bigger jail is under construction. Over the last decade, the nation has spent more than 26 billion dollars building more than 350 new prisons. They help house the ever increasing number of American inmates — a record two million at last count, more than any other country in the world.
LEWIS: Kathy, this is my oldest son, David.
HUGHES: Remember David Jr., the son David Lewis feared he would see in prison one day? He did wind up behind bars for a short time— but like his father, he found his way out.
LEWIS: You still work at the boys’ club? Okay. He’s still working at the boys’ club now.
How many of you are fathers? You know what the statistics say…
HUGHES: David Lewis’ success in helping his son change is his crowning achievement. And it offers a lesson not lost on the many fathers inside this jail.
LEWIS: I convinced my son that he had an alcohol problem. I took him to Walden House in San Francisco. He stayed there a year. He graduated that program.
Two years later he called me again and he said, “Man, I need you to come and do something for me.” And I came to the house and he showed me a letter where he had got a full scholarship to the University of Hastings, Nebraska under one condition — that a parent had to bring him to school. I said, “If you don’t get your ass in the car right now.”
Hey, man, my son is a thug out of East Palo Alto. See? He went and broke every damn football record that school ever had — And my son was on the news and the guy asked him, he said, “What made you change the course of your life?” You know what he said? I’m gonna start crying. And I understand there’s principles on our belief when those— that men don’t cry. But I don’t care, see? My son told the news reporter, he said, “My father intervened in my life at a time that I needed him.” I didn’t fall out of heaven, see? I didn’t come in some cape and some wings and all that kind of stuff. I did some fundamental things, some fundamental things like hanging out with him.
LEWIS: I’m impressed that this workshop is so well attended.
MILLS: His story is about the possibility of human transformation. If we don’t have people like David Lewis who can convince us of the possibility of that healing and transformation, we can have no hope. And without that hope, all we can do is continue to build more prisons.
LEWIS: Thank y’all for having me and allowing me to share.
ANNOUNCER: NOW continues with David Brancaccio from public radio’s MARKETPLACE.
BRANCACCIO: The media spotlight has been on Iraq. That shouldn’t blind us to the important developments right next door to it. In Iran recently, student demonstrations escalated into mass protests calling for the overthrow and even death of Iran’s religious and political leaders. The children of the revolution are behind the push for change.
Nearly half of Iran’s population was born after the Shah was overthrown in 1979. Author and literary scholar, Azar Nafisi, was in Iran during and after the revolution. A professor of English, angered and frustrated by the harsh restrictions placed on women there, she resigned her university position in 1995 but was determined to keep teaching for two years in secret. Seven of her best students came to her living room and quietly studied subversive Western authors: Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov.
Now director of the Dialogue Project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Azar Nafisi has written READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN about her underground study group and life under the reign of the Ayatollahs. Welcome to NOW.
NAFISI: Thank you.
BRANCACCIO: Tell me about the Iran that you lived in around the time of the revolution.
NAFISI: Well, you know, before the revolution I had an image of myself as a woman, as a writer, as an academician, as a person with a set of values. When the Ayatollah came to power by saying that the way I looked, I mean, I had never thought that way I look as part of my identity or not.
I just left home a certain way every morning. And even my gestures — like shaking hands in public — was forbidden. I mean, and I automatically when I saw a colleague or a friend I would, you know, stretch out my hands to shake. And then I realized that if all of these small gestures and details were taken away from me I would become someone who was a stranger to herself.
If I had to excise the word “wine” from the book I taught, if I had to think that kissing my husband on the cheek in public was something that would, should make me feel guilty then I didn’t know who I was who was doing these other things that were alien to her being, you know? So, both identity and reality become very fragile under such circumstances.
BRANCACCIO: Actually, we have a couple pictures that you brought of…different versions…
NAFISI: Of myself.
BRANCACCIO: Of yourself? I mean, I don’t know if one of these other ones really is yourself. This one here, was that the real you?
NAFISI: This was the real me. I mean, this is the way I looked. And when I first went to Iran, this is the way I would appear in public. I wore the red lipstick like many other women in Iran as a reaction almost because it was so forbidden, you know? But this is the way I looked, yes.
BRANCACCIO: And here’s another version of yourself. That’s you?
NAFISI: That is why I felt so alien and I felt ashamed. Because I felt that here I am teaching my students and I’m teaching them about ethics and imagination and honesty to yourself. And here I am looking like a person whom I don’t know myself.
BRANCACCIO: You felt that image was dishonest?
NAFISI: This image was definitely dishonest. And the other one, like a Satanic power, was trying to come out of this one. You know? So I would show a strand of hair. Or I would kiss a male colleague in the hall, you know? Just because I guess as if I wanted to prove to myself that the real me is really this, you know? It’s not gone away forever.
BRANCACCIO: Yeah, the strand of hair that might peep out from behind a veil comes up a lot actually in the book. What is the threat of a strand of hair, for heaven’s sake?
NAFISI: Well, first of all, I want to mention that the regime used the idea of the veil, the fact that women’s hair is supposed to tempt men. Now what kind of men would be tempted by my strand of hair? I mean, they really have got problems they should be thinking about.
But that’s beside the point. They use it as an ideology, in fact, to impose a uniformity upon the population in the same way that in China people had to wear Mao jackets. And women couldn’t wear makeup. And they had to wear their hair short. This was not really religion. This was ideology — using religion as an ideology.
BRANCACCIO: Used as a tool of oppression.
NAFISI: Yes, as a tool of control. Because you would all look alike. And you would all look the way that the guy who was ruling your country told you to look. This was extreme form of control. And you see it in all totalitarian states.
BRANCACCIO: Tell me about Thursday mornings back at your house in Iran. Who would come?
NAFISI: Well, that was in 1995 when I resigned from my last academic job. I couldn’t take it anymore. And I thought that I can now fulfill a dream and have a group of students who just love literature — who are in it not for the grades, not to just graduate and get a job but just want to read Nabokov or Austen. And so I asked seven of my best girl students to come to my home every Thursday morning.
From nine to 12 it was first. And then it just went from nine to whenever. And we would read and discuss these works. And one of them, the youngest, she was a freshman. But she would audit my graduate classes. And just because she wanted to read MADAME BOVARY. Now, I thought, “Well, these are the people who are really committed. For whom MADAME BOVARY is a world that they want to pay a price to enter.”
BRANCACCIO: And just to underscore, I mean, MADAME BOVARY is going to be a text about adultery that you’re teaching in post-revolutionary Iran.
NAFISI: I remember once I gave a talk on MADAME BOVARY and of course it was standing room only. I mean, whenever you gave talks on literature it would be almost a riot. People would just come from all over. And it became very heated discussion because some people were making the point that MADAME BOVARY is all about adultery, you know?
How could justify and, of course, there were critiques written of MADAME BOVARY as an adulterous book that should be banned. And that was our discussion. That you don’t read books to be morally led towards the right path. MADAME BOVARY is not about adultery.
And if I read MADAME BOVARY I don’t become an adulteress. It’s like saying that reading MOBY DICK would want you to go whaling, you know? People read in order to look at the world differently. They don’t read to be given these preachings.
BRANCACCIO: It’s not a moral fable.
BRANCACCIO: That’s the wrong reading of literature.
NAFISI: That is the wrong reading of literature. If you do that, it closes its world to you. You can’t enter the world. You have to become like Alice. Jump into the hole. Don’t think. Think that there can be a white rabbit who talks and jump after him.
BRANCACCIO: Professor Nafisi, LOLITA? I mean, what’s the polite thing to say? I guess professors like to say it lacks a moral center. At the very least it lacks a moral center. I have young girls and I find it icky looking at that book.
But the students found this account of an old creep’s rape of a 12-year-old somehow evocative of their experience.
NAFISI: When you think like that, it’s icky. I mean, that is the whole point that good literature can take something that is very sacred, that is very profane and turn it into sacred and vice versa. A bad author can take the most moral issue and make you want to just never, ever think about that moral issue.
The first page of Nabokov’s novel s about the fact that he was in love with a young girl when he was 13. And that love is not consummated. So what does he do? He turns that unconsummated love into the dream and obsession of his life. And when he meets Lolita, he wants to turn Lolita into Annabelle Lee.
The biggest crime in Nabokov’s LOLITA is imposing your own dream upon someone else’s reality. Humbert Humbert is blind. He doesn’t see Lolita’s reality. He doesn’t see that Lolita should leave. He only sees Lolita as an extension of his own obsession. This is what a totalitarian state does.
BRANCACCIO: But Lolita, it’s hard to understand that character because the author doesn’t give you much of a sense of her own identity.
NAFISI: The whole point is that Lolita, like my girls in Iran, would be constantly defined by their oppressors. And this is the heart-breaking part of LOLITA. And Nabokov is such a great writer that he makes you see it. He makes you see that even the name Lolita is a name that Humbert chooses for her, because she’s called Dolores in real life. And some people call her Dolly. But in his arms is always Lolita.
And that is the heart-breaking aspect of these systems. That they make you so much theirs that they rewrite you. And that is why fiction is so powerful because we rewrite them. When my girls wrote about their experiences in the Islamic Republic, the way they felt, they were rewriting what the Ayatollah had said. And they were reversing it. And in this way, they were gaining over control over their life, and that is what Nabokov was doing.
BRANCACCIO: Do you think the class ever put your students in danger?
NAFISI: Talking about that, and I refer you again to Nabokov, life in those societies is not dangerous because you know that this is against the law, and this is not. The most dangerous thing about ordinary people living in these countries is the arbitrary nature of the law. They might not pay any attention to you, or they might raid you.
If they raided that house, there was enough for them to make them happy — to have raided it — you know? And this was the constant fear that I haven’t even given up, after having lived here for six years. The fact that when you wake up in the morning, you don’t know if you go out into the streets and you wear a little bit of make-up, and your hair shows, they might not do anything to you.
The next day you go into the streets, and you might wear no make-up, and wear your veil properly, and they’ll get you. It is arbitrary. It is based on the will of the individuals who decide at one moment or another what to do.
So, in that sense, it was dangerous and what they wrote was dangerous. They talked about being harassed and sexually molested by religious men in minibuses. They talked about all sorts of sexual harassment that happened to them. And one of them who wore the veil, was saying that she questioned the veil now. And she did not believe that this anymore represented her faith, but represented a set of politics. Those things were dangerous.
BRANCACCIO: I want to fully understand your attitude toward Islam. You talk about, you find wearing the veil offensive to you. But what about the notion of Islam itself?
NAFISI: You know, I think today, and that again is why Iran is so important. I think that Islam is in a sense, in crisis. It needs to question and re-question itself. And it is undergoing a period of turmoil and crisis, because it is in this process of transition.
Now, the point about religion is that this religion is going to undergo transformation. And you see many of the clerics and religious people in Iran discussing it, and being self-reflective and self-critical.
What I’m saying is that if you live in a country which the majority of people are Muslim, that doesn’t mean that there should be one version of Islam, and that no other version should be practiced. People talk about Islamic democracy. I don’t understand it. It’s like saying Christian democracy, Judaic democracy. There is only one form of democracy which protects the life and the right of all citizens to worship, to realize their fullest potentials.
In my country, that right is taken away from us.
BRANCACCIO: Do you think we’re approaching a key moment in Iranian history?
NAFISI: I think that we have been moving towards that, I felt that from late 1980’s, that this illusion with the revolution began with the youth who had been very revolutionary, who were even hostage takers, they were quoting Imam Khomenei before, and now, they’re quoting Hannah Arendt, and Karl Popper, and going to jail for it.
And this new generation you have to understand that they have been flogged for showing a bit of hair. They have gone to jail, came back, show their hair again, and gone to jail. So, much more than my revolution, my generation. They understand the price of freedom, and the price of individual freedoms the way my generation could never understand.
BRANCACCIO: One of my favorite English professors likes to say that “English majors will rule the world.” Is that a good outcome for Iran?
NAFISI: I think English majors should always be subversive of the world. I don’t want to rule the world, I want to constantly be able to subvert it a little bit to the other side.
BRANCACCIO: The book is called READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN: A MEMOIR IN BOOKS. Professor Azar Nafisi, thank you very much.
NAFISI: Thank you so much.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW: is creative accounting robbing you of your pension?
MAN: When I retired, it was the promises and the dream, and now it has become the lie and the nightmare.
ANNOUNCER: How corporate mischief could ruin your retirement. That’s next week on NOW.
And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org. David Lewis’ radical approach to helping ex-convicts. More on Iran’s student protests, past and present. See “Aftermath of War,” a photo-essay by Lori Grinker.
Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
MOYERS: Never was a ship more aptly named than the American Navy’s “Comfort,” the hospital ship that came steaming back into its home port of Baltimore last week after five months in the Persian gulf.
You couldn’t measure the joy that filled the harbor that day as families welcomed home their loved ones.
During Comfort’s tour of duty, the crew took care of hundreds of the wounded and sick from the invasion of Iraq, including some 200 Iraqi POW’s and civilians.
The photographer Lori Grinker was aboard Comfort for some of that time. We asked her for these snapshots of what she saw of the wounded and their healers.
GRINKER: When you see the wounded come in, it really brings home the reality of the war.
And it’s kind of a nightmare, when you see these people coming in off the helicopters with all this apparatus, respirators.
And as one of the orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Jeff Headrick said that the injuries we’re seeing in this war were different than anything they had seen before because of the velocity of the weapons. And the bodies were pulverized.
These are two of the surgeons, two women treating an Iraqi man. They’re performing surgery on his hand, and then the people in the background are putting the iodine on his leg. They’re going to operate on his leg.
I think what happened was so many Iraqis began to come aboard because it was one of the best places to treat people. And there were many more wounded Iraqis than there were coalition forces.
This is in the area known as casualty receiving.
And it’s an Iraqi man who was brought on as a POW and had a head injury.
The surgeon who treated him said that he would kiss her hand every time she went to check on him to thank her.
He was one of the Iraqis who were grateful to receive care.
It’s part of the Geneva Convention. It says that, “all the wounded, to whichever party they belong, shall be respected and protected.”
Jose Torres is a sergeant in the Marines based in Camp Lejeune. And he’s 26 years old. He was wounded in the now famous battle in Nasiriyah. He’s gone through more than a dozen surgeries. It will take him about a year to recover.
There were several of the marines who were in the battle in Nasiriyah on the ship. And the Marine General came on one day to give them Purple Hearts. So they went around to each young man. And Jose was in really bad shape then. And since we wasn’t wearing a shirt, they had to figure out where to pin his Purple Heart. And they put it on the sheet.
He said, “Anybody who tells you that war is fun or that it’s exciting is a liar.” He said, “It’s frightening. It’s horrible.” And you know he told me that he and his wife want their son to go to college. So that he has a choice, that joining the military wouldn’t be the only alternative.
This is a 21-year-old army sergeant, Kevin Cruise.
Everybody has e-mail now. So more often than not, they’re e-mailing their families. His family did not have e-mail and he was one of the few people who still writes letters, and he was writing a letter to his wife in Chicago.
It was quite an amazing experience for me to be able to report this small part of the war story.
I was extremely impressed with the medical care, with the technology that exists on the ship, with their abilities to treat the most horrendous wounds.
But it’s quite upsetting to see what the war machine does to these human beings. And that’s what the pictures represent for me, the human cost of war.
MOYERS: You will find more of Lori Grinker’s photographs in her books THE INVISIBLE THREAD and the upcoming AFTER WAR, to be published early next year.
That’s it for NOW. Thanks for watching.
I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 13, 2015.