Melissa Harris-Lacewell confronts the issue of constructively discussing race in America and the place for this conversation in US politics. Program guests also include Bruce Bawer and John R. MacArthur.
BILL MOYERS: It’s time to send an SOS for the least among us — I mean small independent magazines. They are always struggling to survive while making a unique contribution to the conversation of democracy. Magazines like NATIONAL REVIEW, THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, SOJOURNERS, THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE, THE NATION, WASHINGTON MONTHLY, MOTHER JONES, IN THESE TIMES, WORLD MAGAZINE, THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW, REASON and many others.
The Internet may be the way of the future, but for today much of what you read on the Web is generated by newspapers and small magazines. They may be devoted to a cause, a party, a worldview, an issue, an idea, or to one eccentric person’s vision of what could be, but they nourish the public debate. America wouldn’t be the same without them.
Our founding fathers knew this; knew that a low-cost postal incentive was crucial to giving voice to ideas from outside the main tent. So they made sure such publications would get a break in the cost of reaching their readers. That’s now in jeopardy. An impending rate hike, worked out by postal regulators, with almost no public input but plenty of corporate lobbying, would reward big publishers like Time Warner, while forcing these smaller periodicals into higher subscription fees, big cutbacks and even bankruptcy.
It’s not too late. The postal service is a monopoly, but if its governors, and especially members of Congress, hear from enough citizens, they could have a change of heart. So, liberal or conservative, left or right, libertarian, vegetarian, communitarian or Unitarian, or simply good Samaritan, let’s make ourselves heard.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Speaking of magazines this one caught my eye the other day, THE PRINCETON ALUMNI WEEKLY, with a profile of one of the university’s popular professors, Melissa Harris-Lacewell. The subject: Talking About Race. It seems the professor has created a safe place for her students to discuss this explosive topic.
We know just how explosive by thinking Don Imus or Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh recently broadcast a piece by the impersonator, Paul Shanklin, singing in Al Sharpton’s voice as a parody of a LOS ANGELES TIMES column titled, “Magic Negro Returns”. I want to play a clip from that Limbaugh broadcast, before you meet Melissa Harris-Lacewell. Warning. You might find this offensive but remember that millions heard it on Rush Limbaugh.
THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW: “Barack the ‘Magic Negro’ lives in D.C.
THE L.A. TIMES, they called him that ’cause he’s not authentic like me.”
BILL MOYERS: Now here’s another clip, this one from last Sunday’s THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS on ABC. He’s interviewing Barack Obama.
THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You have a very cool style when you’re doing those town meetings where you’re out on the campaign trail, and I wonder, how much of that is tied to your race?
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: That’s interesting.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: One of your friends told THE NEW YORKER magazine that the mainstream is just not ready for a fire-breathing black man so do you turn down the temperature on purpose?”
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: You know, I don’t think it has to do with race. I think it has to do with when I’m campaigning I’m in a conversation.
BILL MOYERS: No one’s better qualified to talk about all this than Melissa Harris-Lacewell. You’ll find her CV on our Web site. After seven years at the University of Chicago, she is now an associate professor at Princeton. She wrote BARBERSHOPS, BIBLES, AND BET: EVERYDAY TALK AND BLACK POLITICAL THOUGHT, and she co-authored this 2005 report on the Katrina disaster. She’s working on a second book called FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO CONSIDERED POLITICS WHEN BEING STRONG WASN’T ENOUGH. Welcome to the JOURNAL.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: What buttons were those clips pushing?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, you know, the Barack Obama piece is interesting because the question of Barack Obama’s racial identity and racial authenticity is both a question of sort of white anxiety about a black Presidential candidate, but also a lot about black anxiety about a black Presidential candidate in the person of Barack Obama. Now I think what this button is about more than anything else is that we don’t know what race is. There was a moment in American history when we decided that race meant you were black if any traceable ancestor was black. We asserted that during slavery. We asserted it again at the turn of the century. You would be subject to slavery. You’d be subject to Jim Crow if anybody that we could identify in your history was black.
But now, blackness is complex. An awful lot of black Americans are actually recent immigrants from Africa, recent immigrants from the West Indies or are people of multi-racial heritage like Barack Obama. What do we do with that? Are we sticking by this one drop racial rule? Are we developing a more race-interesting society?
BILL MOYERS: Yes? You’re the professor.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Right. These are the questions that we are like fighting through right now. There’s not sort of one moment where we get to decide it. Barack Obama becomes a place where we can project our anxieties about race.
BILL MOYERS: So, is it even accurate to say that Barack Obama is a black man running for office?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh —
BILL MOYERS: Running for the President?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, absolutely. Yes, Barack Obama’s black. He’s, I mean, first of all, he’s black, because he would have been enslaveable. He’s black, because he would have been subject to Jim Crow. He’s also black, because none of us get to choose our parents, right? You have a tall parent, you have a short parent, you have a conservative parent, a liberal parent, whatever. He has a black parent and a white parent. But in every thing in which Barack Obama had volition and choice, he chose to connect himself with African American communities. He lives on the South Side of Chicago. He’s married to a black woman, and I like to say Michele Obama is black from a distance, right?
So, whatever anxieties you have about Barack Obama, he’s married to a black woman. He’s raising black children in a black community. He was a, you know, community organizer on the South Side. He’s an elected official, elected by tens of thousands of African Americans to represent them, both as their state senator and now as their U.S. senator. How could he not be black?
BILL MOYERS: So, is he going to stimulate a new conversation about race, as you’ve just defined it? Or is he going to be a victim of the old conversation?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think Barack Obama’s going to try really hard not to have a conversation about race, because he’s legitimately running for the Presidency, and he doesn’t want to talk about it from a strategic position.
BILL MOYERS: Of the Rush Limbaugh clip, he said, “I don’t do Limbaugh.” You know? That’s not even worth my attention. And he took the question from George Stephanopoulos and turned it into has nothing to do with race. It’s about a conversation I’m having on the campaign trail —
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That’s right —
BILL MOYERS: Can he get away with that?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well he’s, I don’t think Barack Obama’s going to win the American Presidency in 200 — right now he’s this kind of opportunity for lots of Democrats to say, “We want something different, we want something new.” But my bet is that, that sort of notion of new and different doesn’t quite carry over in the general election. I’d love to see him as the Vice President even though I know this irritates a lot of people. I’d love to see him as the Vice President because my bet is that he could win eight years later. And the reason is because we know a lot about black elected officials at other levels-at mayors, congressmen. And it turns out white voters get really comfortable after a black person has been incumbent when they realize that, in fact, black officeholders don’t increase welfare payments or open up the jails and let all the black criminals out.
In fact, black people govern just about the same way that white people govern, and it tends to reduce white anxiety and increase the likelihood of white support when it’s a black incumbent.
BILL MOYERS: Did I hear you say that you think he won’t get the nomination or be elected for other reasons than race?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That’s right. I think that he will not be elected, because of reasons other than race. But I do think that race will always be there. No one is missing the fact that Barack Obama’s black. No one is not noticing it. It’s not whispered. Everybody gets that Barack Obama is black. And that still really matters in America.
BILL MOYERS: Limbaugh and Imus clearly the most visible sparks, but what about the media at large? For example, if you look at the Sunday talk shows on the networks, rarely a Hispanic, occasionally a black, mostly all white people.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yes, and mostly all white men of a certain age. And in fact, the African Americans are pretty clearly it’s either someone who’s holding an official position like Condoleezza Rice clearly manages to make the Sunday morning shows, or similarly a Latino who holds that sort of position, or those who are quite conservative. So black Americans who are pretty unrepresentative of the rest of the black population, because they hold extremely conservative views. I think this goes though to our question of whether or not black Americans get to count as citizens. You know, I rarely get called on to talk about elections or politics generally. The networks or the radio shows will call me to talk about race which I’m happy to do. It’s something I study, and I’m passionate about. But I know more about the electoral college than most American citizens.
BILL MOYERS: We’re going to change that then. We’re going to give you plenty of opportunity to talk about —
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, and not just me, but you know —
BILL MOYERS: No, no, I know what you mean —
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: — lots of folks who, you know, really can speak on kind of broad issues. The best example of this, Martin Luther King, when he had won the Nobel Peace Prize and then he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, the American media said, “You have no right to be speaking on this issue. You’re a civil rights leader. You should be talking about civil rights.”
But he was a leader, and he understood questions of war and peace. And he had a right to speak on that. And so I think we similarly are constrained in our idea of who ought to be talking about all kinds of different ideas.
BILL MOYERS: So, how do you expect change to come?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Slowly and through pressure. So —
BILL MOYERS: But kids don’t go out and protest the way they did in the ’60s.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, have you listened to hip-hop?
BILL MOYERS: Well, I’ve tried to, and I’ve had people try to explain it to me.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: But what do you mean? Why is hip-hop bringing this change?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think that hip-hop has the insurgent possibilities and capabilities. Now there’s a little bit of a problem with hip-hop, and that is it’s a commodity that’s bought and sold. And any time you’re a commodity that’s bought and sold, you have at least one aspect of your culture that can sort of go in a profit motivation.
But I will say that hip-hop music like Gospel music, like Blues music, like jazz music is the voice of a generation. And it has within it the insurgent capacity, the capacity to say, “Look, I’m not happy here, this is not enough, I expect more, I’m worthy of more.” And over and over again in hip-hop from the mid-1970’s until today, there’s a strain of it that is saying that.
BILL MOYERS: But why do so many people say, accurately it seems to me, reading the lyrics, , that hip-hop puts down women, puts down the race, in fact. That it’s a venomous language.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, there is a clear misogynist and sort of — I would say aspect that is just about, you know, making money and commodifying women. But I will say that that came at a very specific moment, and it came at a moment in hip-hop when hip-hop went from being kind of a street-based, musical art form of urban, young people to a corporate entity, purchased mostly by white suburban boys who were interested in generating and consuming a particular form of blackness. But even as hip-hop went in that direction, there’s a whole ‘nother, very well articulated and well loved element of hip-hop which black urban youth continue to not only produce, but consume.
BILL MOYERS: The popular perception was that Imus was quoting hip-hop.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: No, he wasn’t. No, seriously, he really wasn’t. I mean —
BILL MOYERS: when he referred to the basketball…
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, no, really, he wasn’t. No. So there’s a couple of reasons why Imus could not have been quoting hip-hop. First, it wasn’t as though hip-hop taught America how to degrade women or particularly how to degrade black women. America had figured that out long, long, long before hip-hop. Secondly, although hip-hop often uses the word “ho,” it rarely ever calls someone a “nappy-headed ho.” So we talked a lot about “ho.” But we haven’t talked much about “nappy-headed.” And “nappy-headed” is a way of saying you, black woman, in your natural, physical state in, who you are — unacceptable, ugly, valueless. Now, that’s not hip-hop.
Actually hip-hop tends to dress up black women in long, straight wigs, much more likely than it is to go to this place which is a very old place around, slavery, around Jim Crow that says, “Your physical self is an unacceptable, sort of orientation of blackness. I can see that you’re black from across the room, and that’s unacceptable to me.”
BILL MOYERS: You surprise me, because I know how interested and committed you are to politics. That you love politics.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And yet when I ask you how change is going to come, you said music, not politics. Not —
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, no, what I’m suggesting is we are experiencing a new form of racial inequality. So I often say that Jim Crow, we could think of Jim Crow as a nail. And the protest against Jim Crow were a hammer. A hammer is an extremely effective tool when you’re dealing with a nail. Contemporary racial inequality is structural. It’s undercover. It is connected with, also with sort of black achievement which is also going on at the same time. Contemporary racial inequality is a screw, and if you take a hammer and start pounding on a screw, you just end up with a mess which means we have to live with the fact that a new generation is going to have to innovate a screwdriver to deal with the new problem. And that screwdriver might not look anything like the hammer. And we can’t keep yelling at them to use a hammer for a new problem.
BILL MOYERS: So, when you look at your class, do you imagine for them and this growing minority population in America a full participation in the American promise, you know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: It’s so funny that you say pursuit of happiness. This is one of the big things that we’ve talked about together as a class. What does it mean to say that as Americans we have in our founding documents the idea of the pursuit of happiness. And although Thomas Jefferson may have meant to have said property and was made not to say it because of the problem of slavery, we end up with pursuit of happiness in our documents.
Does that mean that we expect that citizens have a right to not only have kind of basic, human structural questions, but also a right to fulfillment, the capacity to be sort of all of who they are as human beings? And if so, how do our notions of race end up constraining human beings from being all that they, you know, really want to fully be as persons?
BILL MOYERS: Would we interpret the Constitution differently if nine black lesbians were on the Supreme Court?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yes, so this is the question I often ask of my students —
BILL MOYERS: I know that.
BILL MOYERS: I’m a fly on the wall —
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That’s right. I say to them, “Look, you know, we assume that Constitutional interpretation handed down by all white male presumably heterosexual courts are appropriate understandings of the Constitution. Would you feel the same way if the court were made up of all gay, black women? Do you assume that gay, black women can be representative citizens in the same way that a heterosexual white man can be? And I can tell you this throws them, they cannot answer this question right away. It takes them a while to really say, “Okay, each of these human experiences is, in fact, allowable to stand in as the representative experience of — an American.”
BILL MOYERS: Will you come back and continue this conversation with me?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, of course!
BILL MOYERS: Melissa Harris-Lacewell, thank you very much for being on THE JOURNAL.
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, thank you for having me.
BILL MOYERS: My mother told us never to speak ill of the dead. Ok. So let Jerry Falwell speak for himself.
JERRY FALWELL: I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'”
BILL MOYERS: That of course was Jerry Falwell, right after the atrocities of 9/11, downright gleeful, or so it seemed, at the sport god had made of America for tolerating so many wicked gays, liberals, progressives, feminists, agnostics, and Bill of Rights-huggers. Falwell was rightfully eulogized and applauded this week for his role in creating a born-again Republican Party.
But it wasn’t his political connections critics couldn’t stomach; it was his theology of fear and loathing. No man I’ve tracked these past 25 years so demonized people he didn’t know or like or understand. Or seemed so indifferent to the hurt inflicted by his grotesque caricatures of those multitudes of people who would never be favored in his precinct or pew. It is sometimes a trait of the fundamentalist mind to deny the humanity of others, and this fundamentalism is not unique to America. Consider the story of Bruce Bawer.
BILL MOYERS: Ten years ago, Bruce Bawer had Christian fundamentalism on his mind. His book STEALING JESUS was a wake-up call about how the Falwells and the Robertsons and their legions of followers were sowing hatred in the name of God. as a gay man and a Christian himself, Bawer warned that they had hijacked Jesus’ message of love and replaced it with a narrow minded legalism. His book was hailed in the press, named one of the year’s best by publishers weekly. but then Bawer left America for the more tolerant shores of Europe.
What he found there was no refuge at all. In parts of Europe’s booming immigrant Muslim population, Bawer witnessed a growing and dangerous radicalism – a strident interpretation of Islam hostile to women and homosexuals, And one that threatens some of the core values of western society.
And so Bruce Bawer wrote what he hopes will be another wake-up call: WHILE EUROPE SLEPT: HOW RADICAL ISLAM IS DESTROYING THE WEST FROM WITHIN.
BILL MOYERS: You write in your book, “The very things that I most love about Europe are those things most threatened by the rise of fundamentalist Islam.” What are those things that you most love about Europe, or did?
BRUCE BAWER: It was the freedom. It was simply the freedom. I as a gay person, coming from a country where we’re still caught up in these arguments with the religious right about whether gay people should have the same rights as anybody else, that sort of thing, to go to Europe and find myself in places where this simply didn’t matter. And everybody realized that as a gay person I wasn’t a threat to anything that they held dear. The idea that men and women should be treated differently, or gay and straight people should be treated differently, seemed to have been decided and moved past. And it just seemed so civilized.
BILL MOYERS: Wasn’t the prevailing attitude when you moved to Amsterdam the philosophy that, well, you do your thing and I’ll do mine, just leave each other alone?
BRUCE BAWER: Yeah, that’s really the Dutch formula. And that’s worked for them for centuries. And this is why the Netherlands was a center of liberty for hundreds of years. The problem is that when they began taking in a whole lot of Muslims, they extended that philosophy to Muslims and so the Muslims were able there to really establish a separate society within the society and you know, without being touched by the democratic culture of the Netherlands. You know, they have their own schools where the kids are taught the Koran, and Koranic values. And you know, fathers, the patriarchs are able to treat their wives just however they want to. Women have no rights to speak of. Their daughters are sold off in marriages. There’s no freedom of speech, there’s no freedom of religion. This is the mentality that’s been imported into Europe.
BILL MOYERS: But there is a paradox it seems to me. I mean, you were attracted to Europe and the Netherlands in no small part because you could be who you are, and your Dutch neighbor could be who he or she is, and you left each other alone. You didn’t try to say, “My way of life as a gay man is better than your way of life as a straight man” or vice versa. And, yet here you’re saying we can’t leave them to follow their own thing?
BRUCE BAWER: Well, multi-culturalism works if the cultures that you’re talking about are all cultures that respect basic human rights, that respect freedom. If you’re dealing with a culture that is essentially intolerant of other values, and that is oppressive itself, then multi-culturalism causes problems.
BILL MOYERS: So you’re saying we can’t treat that ideology, or that culture, as equal to one that espouses democratic values?
BRUCE BAWER: Well, we certainly can’t allow that culture to thrive in our own backyard, in our own countries, because it’s not only unfair to the people living within that subculture, who are being oppressed, but it’s in the long run, it poses a danger to all of us, because of the demographic situation.
BILL MOYERS: But aren’t we talking about only five percent of Europe’s population?
BRUCE BAWER: We’re talking about a population that is growing very quickly. And it doesn’t take long for five percent to turn to l0 to l5 to 20. If you have, you know, a native population that is decreasing quite rapidly, and an immigrant population that is growing quickly, you’re going to see great changes very rapidly and that’s something that people sometimes don’t understand so well.
BILL MOYERS: So what is it about Muslims that make them outside the mainstream of assimilation, integration?
BRUCE BAWER: There’s a problem with them living in enclaves. They’ve come to Europe and they’ve settled in their own communities-in closed communities. They’ve transferred their own societies essentially and social structures from the places they came from into Europe. It’s a patriarchal society that exists within these modern democratic cities in Europe that we think of as the most advanced, progressive places on earth. And the contrasts between the ways in which some people in the city like Amsterdam live, and others do, is mind-boggling.
BILL MOYERS: When I read the book, I was thinking “Isn’t there at the core of this an ideology as opposed to a theology?” Because there are so many Muslims who tell me they don’t agree with that ideology.
BRUCE BAWER: I think it’s fair to say that ideology really is the best word to use here, because I think it does make it very clear what we’re dealing with. And one problem with the situation with Islam and Europe is that it is beginning to reawaken a lot of extreme right elements —
BILL MOYERS: How’s that?
BRUCE BAWER: Who’ve responded to the presence of Muslims and not by turning to defend freedom and democracy and pluralism and secularism but by responding with a nativist intolerance toward any outsider. Toward, you know, the very ideas of outsiders and reclaiming their ethnic identity which is what got Europe in trouble in the first place. And that’s a dangerous move.
BILL MOYERS: Bawer’s book was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle award, and it’s been praised by many. But it’s also been highly controversial. By throwing a light on the radical practices of some European Muslims, Bawer’s been accused of xenophobia. THE ECONOMIST wrote that while he had revealed a real problem, he had cast “too wide a net.”
Bawer says ‘Let the reader decide.’ He welcomes a debate about the conclusions he draws in his book, but says the facts will speak for themselves.
BRUCE BAWER: In Britain a poll by the DAILY TELEGRAPH showed that 40 percent of British Muslims support the idea of having Sharia Law.
BILL MOYERS: Which means?
BRUCE BAWER: Koranic Law in Britain
BILL MOYERS: Under Sharia law as you see it, and I know you’re not a Muslim, but under Sharia law, what would happen to you as a gay man?
BRUCE BAWER: There are different interpretations. Some of them favor stoning. Some of them favor dropping a wall on you. There are disagreements about exactly which is the best method of execution.
BILL MOYERS: But I can hear many American Muslims saying “No, no, no. That’s not what we’re in America-that’s not what we’re about. He may be talking about a radical core of Islamic extremists. But we’re in America because we don’t agree with them.”
BRUCE BAWER: Yeah, but when you have Sharia law, it’s not run by people who are moderate and open minded. It’s run by people who are judging according to what they read in the Koran and in their other holy books. And there are no questions about that as far as they’re concerned.
BILL MOYERS: The BBC broadcast a report that Rotterdam almost has a Muslim majority. So is it conceivable that a Muslim majority in a democratic society could vote in Sharia law and would Europe accept that?
BRUCE BAWER: That’s a disturbing case. But there’s recently a minister of justice in the Netherlands, Piet Hein Donner said, he actually said this, he said that if a majority of people voted to have Sharia law in the Netherlands, it would be a disgrace to say no.
BILL MOYERS: A disgrace?
BRUCE BAWER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Because the democratic principle had prevailed?
BRUCE BAWER: Yes. Because if that’s what that majority wants, that’s what we have to have.
BILL MOYERS: And what would that mean in your sense, for the rights of minorities?
BRUCE BAWER: That would mean that that would be the last election for a very long time. It would be a terrifying situation.
BILL MOYERS: Bawer says this is indicative of how some European officials are capitulating to a growing conservative Islamic community.
For instance – just a few months ago,
But this wasn’t the first time that critics of Islam had been attacked. In 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh produced a movie highly critical of how some Muslim women were treated by the faith.
Clip from Van Gogh’s film: SUBMISSION
MUSLIM WIFE: “Life with my husband is hard to bear, but I submit my will to you.”
BILL MOYERS: A few weeks later, Van Gogh was shot dead on an Amsterdam street. His body was then stabbed repeatedly, a note impaled on his chest, threatening Jews, the west, and any who dared criticize Islam.
BRUCE BAWER: After the murder in Amsterdam somebody who was a member of the Muslim community in Oslo decided that there should be a public demonstration by Muslims in Norway. The media, they were all saying, well, now, we’ll have a huge demonstration of the fact that Norwegian Muslims you know are opposed to terrorism and to this kind of brutal killing that happened in Amsterdam. And what happened? You know, there’s 70,000 Muslims in Norway. Fifty people showed up from the Muslim community. It was a dramatic demonstration of something-but it was a demonstration on the part of some Muslims that they tacitly support that sort of thing. And on the part of a great many Muslims it was a demonstration of great fear. These people live in fear. And that’s something that really worries me — there’s a lot of censorship going on since that murder in Amsterdam and since the cartoon riots in Denmark. There’s more people who are just stopped thinking, “Well, is it worth my writing this, or painting this, or saying this, if I might be killed for it?”
BILL MOYERS: Did you think that? I mean, you were writing this book after all this. You knew what had happened to these other writers, filmmakers, politicians, who were espousing some of the very views you have. Not only were you criticizing Islam, but you are a gay man. This makes you very vulnerable, does it not?
BRUCE BAWER: I guess it does, yeah, but I mean, I became a writer, so that I could say what I think, and if I stop myself from saying what I think, because of considerations like that, then that means we’ve already lost our freedoms. I want people to appreciate the values that our society lives by. I think we take our freedoms for granted. We take our democracy for granted. We take secular society for granted. We take equality of the sexes for granted. I think we need to be aware that there are people who don’t believe in these things and feel very strongly about it, and who represent a potential threat to those things.
BILL MOYERS: Is there a liberal resistance growing in Europe that is standing up to resist the Islamic radicalism?
BRUCE BAWER: You mean from within the Islamic community?
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
BRUCE BAWER: There’s a bit of one. There’s the beginning of one. And the interesting thing is that the most outspoken voices against all this radicalism from within the European Muslim community are young women. Some of them really girls, have come out and spoken up increasingly, talked about the repression they have experienced within their communities, and they want to live as free women in the West.
BILL MOYERS: It was so fascinating reading your story. You left the United States in no small part because of the rise of Christian fundamentalism and the right wing with its homophobia. And here you are now living in a cauldron of homophobia among many Muslim fundamentalists there. Why do you stay there?
BRUCE BAWER: Well, my partner is Norwegian and you know what? We couldn’t move to the United States because this country does not recognize our partnership. We are legal partners in Norway.
BILL MOYERS: It’s just, if there’s no safe haven for you on either side of the Atlantic, where do you belong?
BRUCE BAWER: Well, I don’t know. It’s funny. When I’m in Norway, I feel very American. When I’m back here in America, I feel Norwegian, actually. It’s, you know, it’s funny.
BILL MOYERS: Are you still a Christian?
BRUCE BAWER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: What does that mean when you say “I’m a Christian?”
BRUCE BAWER: Well, that’s a good question. I believe in the things that Jesus preached about. I believe Jesus came to break down barriers between peoples. He came to preach a radical love. He came to break down taboos and to just destroy the polarization that existed in his own time.
BILL MOYERS: Are you at peace with being gay and Christian? When in fact so many people say that’s impossible?
BRUCE BAWER: I’m at peace with it myself, yeah. I’m constantly reminded that I’m not supposed to be, but I am.
BILL MOYERS: What about the members of the gay community who claim there is no such thing as gay and Christian? In fact, they equate Christianity with right wing homophobia.
BRUCE BAWER: Yeah, they do. And —
BILL MOYERS: What about those people? What do you say to them about your faith?
BRUCE BAWER: Well, I wrote a book about gay rights called “A Place At The Table”, which came out in the early ’90s. And I wrote about that. And it was in large part a very strong criticism of the religious right. But it was also a criticism of those in the gay community who feel that we should come out of the closet only to climb into another closet where we’re not allowed to be everything that we are. And we have to fit one certain little narrow mold that is defined by “gay leaders” or “gay community” or “gay activists” or what have you. And I think that it it’s all about being free. That’s all my books really, ultimately, are about being free. And in “A Place At The Table”, I was writing about, in part, about my freedom to be gay and Christian.
BILL MOYERS: You write “It is not secular liberalism, but the truth of Christianity that strikes most penetratingly at the heart of what is wrong with the attitudes of reactionary Christians to homosexuality.” What do you mean by that?
BRUCE BAWER: I mean that when you look at what Jesus preached as opposed to what a lot of our fellow countrymen preach nowadays, that’s not what Christianity is to me. Jesus’ message is the strongest thing that gay people have going for us, I think, in terms of asserting our right to be ourselves.
BILL MOYERS: And that message is?
BRUCE BAWER: Is that God loves us for who we are and everything we are. And that is in all our wholeness.
BILL MOYERS: And yet you’re caught between these worlds. I mean, secular Europe, as you describe it, is seething with Islamic fundamentalism, and America is home to a powerful right wing fundamentalism whose bigotry against gays is a major pillar of the Republican Party.
BRUCE BAWER: Yep
BILL MOYERS: Where does that leave you?
BRUCE BAWER: Between a rock and a hard place, I guess. It’s not easy, no.
BILL MOYERS: Well, thank you very much, Bruce Bawer, for being with me. And congratulations on your book.
BRUCE BAWER: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Before we meet our next guest, take a look at this clip from the floor of congress this week…
REP. STEVE KAGEN: Mr. Speaker, last Friday it was announced that the Democratic leadership had struck a deal with the administration and the U.S. trade representative regarding how this country will approach trade agreements with other nations. While very few have seen the actual text of what this deal looks like, many of us in Congress have concerns as to how these new standards on labor and environment will realistically and effectively be enforced.
BILL MOYERS: That’s Representative Steve Kagen from Wisconsin. And what he’s talking about is all the buzz in Washington this week on trade.
SPEAKER PELOSI: Good afternoon…
BILL MOYERS: Just a week ago the Bush administration and the new Democratic leaders in Congress announced they had made a big breakthrough: a new bi-partisan trade agreement. Billed as an “important first step” –
SPEAKER PELOSI: It is progress — it is historic — we have to know make it work for America’s working families…
BILL MOYERS: The President gets the ‘free trade’ he wants For Wall Street, Democrats get the ‘fair trade’ they want for Main Street…namely, some protection for workers whose jobs are being shipped overseas…and protection for the environment that is often trampled by the trade winds of capitalism.
Sounds like a win-win, right?
Certainly does if you consult the pundits.
Columnist David Broder in the WASHINGTON POST…
Fareed Zakaria in NEWSWEEK.
The WALL STREET JOURNAL…THE NEW YORK TIMES…among others…all praising the agreement.
But hold on. All they know is what they’ve been told. The negotiation of this deal was secret. Its official language has still not been made public.
Skeptical Democrats — like Steve Kagen — who had not been in the negotiations want to know why, if there were strong protections for workers and the environment why were groups like the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce actually speaking well of the deal.
Here with the back story is John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of HARPER’S magazine, one of the country’s oldest and most honored publications. He wrote this book…SECOND FRONT: CENSORSHIP AND PROPAGANDA IN THE GULF WAR, back in 1992. His second book is called: THE SELLING OF ‘FREE TRADE’.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to THE JOURNAL. What telling details caught your eye as you followed the story this week?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, the main thing to know is that this is an initiative, as far as I can tell from my own reporting, from the leadership of the House, which is Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. And this is like the NAFTA campaign of the ’90s, an attempt by the Democratic leadership in those days it was the Clintons to raise money from Wall Street. They’re trying to compete head to head with the Republicans in their own pool.
BILL MOYERS: Why now? What’s the advantage of acting on this at this very moment? What do you see as the strategy?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: It’s simply because we’ve got a big election coming up.
BILL MOYERS: Well, not for —
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: They’re gearing up for 2008. And Rangel has got to beat the Bushes for money. He’s gotta shake down the bankers and the private equity people. And he’s gotta have something to show to them.
BILL MOYERS: But there has been a deadlock on trade for some years now. There has been great disaffection with NAFTA, what’s happened in Mexico, the number of jobs lost in this country. And the Republicans haven’t wanted to give on these issues of labor standards and environmental standards. Could this possibly be a breakthrough?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: No, because it’s just like the NAFTA side agreements in the ’90s. They guaranteed all sorts of things in the side agreements: labor rights, environmental protection in Mexico. And none of it got done. Virtually none of it got done. Now, in these agreements, they’re saying that these countries are suddenly going to start respecting labor rights. That countries like Peru, which can only survive by selling us their cheap labor. In other words, that’s all they’ve got — are going to raise their labor standards that would kill the very justification for setting up a factory in Peru. It’s the same thing in Mexico. It’s the same thing in China.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that so many people embrace this so heartily so quickly?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, the people who embraced it: the media, the pundits, the elites, the heads of banks and of investment banks, and the leadership of the two parties. That’s not the people. The people are sold this idea of free trade over and over again, as though it were good for them. I mean, what do we have to cite? The statistics speak for themselves. More than half a million jobs officially lost because of NAFTA. The other thing to remember, of course, is that it’s not just the brokerages and the financial business. It’s the retail and restaurant industry likes it. Wal-Mart and Wall Street are now allied in this unholy pro-free trade alliance.
BILL MOYERS: How so? Why Wall Street and Wal-Mart?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Because Wal-Mart has dedicated factories in China manufacturing at the cheapest possible rate. People working for 15, 20, 25 cents an hour, making stuff to sell in Wal-Marts in the United States. Generally speaking, they want the cheapest labor possible making goods at the cheapest possible rates so that they can buy them cheaply and sell them more cheaply. In exchange, we get $8.00, $9.00 an hour jobs at Wal-Mart. That’s what the people are faced with.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you subtitle THE SELLING OF FREE TRADE “NAFTA, WASHINGTON, AND THE SUBVERSION OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY”? That’s very strong.
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Under the current rules, there is something called fast track. Unlike every other kind of bill that goes through Congress or treaty that goes through Congress, fast track authority means that Congress tells the president they can negotiate a trade treaty and then return it to Congress for an up or down vote with no amendments, no amendments allowed. So the minute Congress authorizes up or down on not a very good treaty or one that they’re not entirely happy with. They get a lot of pressure from the leadership of the party — from manufacturing, from the big money people.
BILL MOYERS: But trade is good. Trade fuels the economy. It also brings — creates job in this — trade is good. If you’ve got the labor standards, if you’ve got the portable pensions, if you’ve got the health insurance, if you’ve got the things that the social Democrats want, wouldn’t this problem be fixed?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, trade between countries that are roughly equal in income and prosperity like Canada and the United States, that’s very healthy because then you trade this stuff that other guy doesn’t have. But that’s not the point of these agreements. The point of these agreements is to allow American corporations to operate as cheaply as possible in foreign countries and to protect them against expropriation, against seizure of assets.
BILL MOYERS: But maybe this is one of those great realignments in American politics in which the Democratic Party, because money does drive the system now is going far from its roots, right? Already in Washington this week, the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrists or corporate Democrats are blaming people like you of being Lou Dobbs Democrats, right?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Right. Right.
BILL MOYERS: Populist, neo-populist, social Democrats.
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Meanwhile, the Clinton wing of the party is in the ascendancy. Let’s not forget Hillary Clinton was on the board of Wal-Mart for six years when her husband was governor of Arkansas. She is now making some symbolic anti-Wal-Mart gestures. But at heart, she’s very much allied with the retail lobby. Just to give you a sense of how powerful Wal-Mart has become, Fritz Hollings told me-
BILL MOYERS: Former senator from —
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Senator from South Carolina.
BILL MOYERS: Democrat.
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Anti-free trader — told me not long ago that when he introduced a port security bill after 9/11, which would have put a $15 surcharge on every container that comes into an American port to pay for extra security, Wal-Mart and the retail lobby killed it. That’s why we don’t have a port security system because they don’t wanna pay the extra $15 a container. That’s how powerful they’ve become. Even —
BILL MOYERS: Because they want cheap prices for the consumer-
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Because they want cheap prices for the consumer.
BILL MOYERS: They want to right.
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Right.
BILL MOYERS: And the American citizen wants cheap products —
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, that’s the way they put it. But what they really want to do is make more money for Wal-Mart and make Wall Street happy. So one of the things that’s great about manufacturing in China is that you cannot form a union that’s independent of the government union, the Communist Party controlled union. Wal-Mart loves that. They have dedicated factories in China that manufacture exclusively for Wal-Mart.
BILL MOYERS: But globalization is here. The free movement of money, the free movement of ideas, the free movement of goods. You can’t reverse that, can you?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: You could if you slapped tariffs on certain imports. “Tariff,” the word “tariff” has become a dirty word in this country. A protective tariff aimed at protecting certain industries, certain groups of people is perfectly all right. The Japanese do it. The Japanese have one of the highest standards of living in the world, one of the best healthcare systems. They have the highest tariffs of industrialized, among unindustrialized nations. They protect their home market against cheap imports.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that Pat Buchanan seems more pro-worker than the Democrats do today?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Because Pat Buchanan is an economic nationalist. He believes that America should prosper ahead of airy-fairy liberal international scheme to enrich the world.
BILL MOYERS: Are you also an economic nationalist?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: I’ve become more of one because — not in the Buchanan sense — because more and more I realize that every time somebody says, “We’re helping the poor” or “We’re helping the foreigners” or “the poor foreigners,” what they really mean is, “We’re going to exploit the hell out of them. This is a way we’re going to lock in cheap labor in any country you can think of and exploit them.” And it’s a union killing movement in the United States. You cannot form an union in the United States anymore without risking your plant being closed, sent overseas, or other kinds of intimidation. That’s why union membership and private union membership has now fallen to eight percent of the workforce. As an American, as a citizen, I don’t want to see the big money keep winning the way it’s been winning over and over and over again. I also want to see a democratic debate restored on this absolutely crucial issue. Fast track, if it passes, kills the possibility of a democratic debate because then it’s in the hands of the executive.
BILL MOYERS: Fast track will be coming up in a few months.
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: It’ll be coming up.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, this story’s only begun last week.
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Right, right.
BILL MOYERS: It’s just in the first stages.
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Right.
BILL MOYERS: So this debate will be going on for some time, right?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Precisely. And the Democrats have an incentive to drag it out —
BILL MOYERS: Why?
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Because they don’t want to have their caucus split. The Democrats have people like Sherrod Brown who are elected to the Senate in Ohio on an anti-free trade platform. Ohio’s been absolutely devastated by free trade. There are factories leaving Ohio almost every week, significant plant closures every week because of NAFTA.
What is Sherrod Brown gonna go back to his constituents and say if fast track gets passed with some symbolic gestures towards labor rights that can’t be enforced in these foreign countries anyway? He’s going to be between a rock and a hard place.
BILL MOYERS: What is the strategy of doing this? You think it is about contributions between now and 2000 — the campaign —
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Yes. They’re trying to string it out so they can raise as much money from Wall Street as possible and then hope that the issue goes away or that it gets voted on after the 2008 election. We, as citizens, have got to stop it before it gets to that point. We have to say to the Congress, “We’re not gonna let you do another NAFTA. We’re not going to let you do another PNTR. We’re going to be involved in this debate as citizens, and we’re gonna restore democracy to this debate.” And if it requires action in the street like there was in Seattle in 1999, maybe that’s what’s going to happen. If it requires a split in the Democratic Party — maybe that’s what’s gonna have to happen. But the way it’s been going, the jobs just keep going out. Median income in this country has fallen $10 in constant dollars from 2002 until last year. $10.** Not huge but people are feeling it and they’re panicked.
BILL MOYERS: The book is THE SELLING OF FREE TRADE: NAFTA, WASHINGTON, AND THE SUBVERSION OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. Rick MacArthur is the publisher of HARPER’S. Thank you for joining us on The Journal.
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for this week. We’ll be back this time next week. Meantime, keep in touch on the blog at pbs.org. I’m Bill Moyers.
** Median weekly earnings, in constant dollars, are down $10 since 2002. The exact figure from the Labor Department — calculated in 1982 dollars — is $681 a week in 2002 down to $671 in 2006.
This transcript was entered on May 20, 2015.