The Muslim Brotherhood, long one of the world’s most brutal terrorist groups, advocated violence against the Egyptian government and even supplied some foot soldiers for Osama bin Laden. As their leaders appeared to be having second thoughts, this episode of NOW With Bill Moyers considered whether their change of heart was to be trusted.
In the second segment, celebrated independent filmmaker John Sayles examined the ever-changing landscape of America in his film SUNSHINE STATE.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. Our attention has focused this week on the arrest of a suspected terrorist here in the United States, an American citizen who had converted to Islam some years ago while in prison.
The news revved up the post-9/11 debate over whether there is something intrinsic in Islam in its holy book, the Koran, that nurtures violence.
That debate has flared in Egypt, of all places in the capital city of Cairo, a cradle of Islamic militance.
A fearsome network there has long advocated violence against the Egyptian government, and even supplied some of the foot soldiers for Osama bin Laden.
Now, reportedly, they’re having second thoughts; they’ve gone back to the Koran and found it didn’t say what they thought it said.
Is their change of heart to be trusted?
NPR’s Deborah Amos has our report.
DEBORAH AMOS: For centuries, Cairo has been the intellectual capitol of the Islamic world; ideas forged here can reach across nations and continents.
Now, a debate begun in Cairo over Islam’s sacred texts is gaining attention elsewhere.
Violence in the name of Islam is a blunder, say the authors of these new books that have just appeared in the Cairo.
Books written by men in jail, who lead Egypt’s largest, most militant terrorist organization, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyyah.
Authors who now say their past acts of violence have gotten them nowhere, and have made Islam an enemy of the west.
FAWAZ GERGES: The four books and the ideas they propose, to my mind represent a fundamental change in Al-Gama’a’s thinking.
AMOS: Political scientist Fawaz Gerges has been studying Gama’a-Islamiyyah from the United States.
Do these books have a reach outside of Egypt?
GERGES: Oh, no doubts about it.
What we need to remember is that Egypt is really a key, not just to the Arab world, but even to the entire Muslim world.
What takes place in Egypt shapes the political currents throughout the Arab world.
AMOS: Nearly a decade ago, it was currents of violence that reached out from the Muslim world when Islamic militants attacked the world trade center for the first time.
That attack was tied directly back to Egypt through this man.
Omar Abdul Rahman is now serving a life sentence for his role in the bombing, but his first enemy was the Egyptian government.
GERGES: Sheik Abdul Rahman believed that the United States was supporting and maintaining the authoritarian regime in Egypt.
And he believed that by attacking the United States, you are really attacking the Egyptian regime.
AMOS: Rahman was the spiritual leader of Al-Gama’a Islamiyyah, the group has a long history of attacking the Egyptian government.
In 1981, Gama’a gunmen fired the shots that killed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat– the signal that radical Islam had declared war.
Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak counterattacked.
The crackdown was unrelenting: mass arrests, long jail terms.
But the movement would not be stopped.
Recruits from Egypt’s poorest neighborhoods signed on for an Islamic revolution they believed they could win.
Intellectuals, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, believed the Egyptian government had betrayed Islam.
Angered by the government’s corruption and incompetence, Zawahiri also lead the violent movement.
ZAWAHIRI: we believed in our religion, both as an ideology and practice, and hence we tried our best to establish this Islamic state and this Islamic society.
AMOS: As radical Islam reached out from Egypt, Zawahiri would become a major figure, Osama bin Laden’s chief strategist on attacks against the United States.
GERGES: He believed you were hitting two birds with one stone, because after all the United States provides and supports and is the sustainer of the existing political order throughout the Arab world.
AMOS: And in Egypt, radical Islam, armed with the Koran, focused on the roots of its anger: the Egyptian government.
Al-Gama’a Islamiyya was one of the most violent organizations in the Middle East, as it tried to topple the Mubarak government and replace it with an Islamic one.
WELSH: Egypt had its own war on terror.
It was a very violent one during the 1990s.
AMOS: David Welsh is the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt.
WELSH: There were a couple of groups associated with many of those violent actions, which resulted in the deaths of many innocent people.
Large numbers of security personnel were killed in violent encounters between these groups.
AMOS:The next target was Egypt’s main source of income: tourism.
This was the bloody aftermath of an attack in Luxor in 1997.
58 tourists were killed, 30 wounded by gunmen from Al-Gama’a Islamiyya.
Some victims were tortured.
MUBARAK: We are going to take much more measures to secure every single person here.
AMOS: The brutality of the attack, the effect on the economy as tourists fled, led to the majority of Egyptians backing a military crackdown that jailed thousands of Islamic militants.
At least 20,000 are still in jail.
GERGES: The Egyptian state has won the war both on the battlefield and also in the courts of public opinion. The question is, how do you prevent a new militancy and uprising from arising in Egypt? How do you dry the swamp of militancy in Egypt?
AMOS: One answer may come from the militants themselves, on the pages of books that claim to renounce violence.
Political science professor Emad Shahin.
EMAD SHAHIN: These leaders have agreed to pronounce their mistake… Past mistakes of resorting to armed struggle against the regime in order to topple the regime, and also to invite other groups to relinquish violence in terms of their interaction.
AMOS: Is this significant?
SHAHIN: It’s extremely significant; it’s, after all, a peace initiative.
AMOS: A peace initiative from the leaders of the most violent group to the government they hate.
GERGES: These represent the most senior, executive leaders within Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya. The most critical individuals, who basically planned the military operations, who basically set the policy for Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya. And here lies the importance of the four books.
AMOS: Maybe, says Ambassador Welsh, who has served in the Middle East for 20 years.
WELSH: I know that some of them have signed on to denouncing violence. One reason for that may be that those methods lost them public support, to the extent that that’s true and they have taken note of that and separated themselves from terrorism, i would hope that others will learn the same lessons.
AMOS: These surprising publications were first displayed at a recent Cairo book fair, and that could only mean it had the approval of the Egyptian government.
So is this a genuine change of heart or long term prisoners looking for early release from jail?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a human rights advocate who opposed radical Islam, is convinced they have changed.
SAAD EDDIN IMBRAHIM: They have come to the conclusion, some earlier than others, that violence did not get them anywhere. That it is a dead end. That they actually, looking at all the change of the Islamic movements, they are better off pursuing their program peacefully.
AMOS: In one of life’s ironies, Ibrahim has heard his old enemies the militants up close.
He was sent to prison after criticizing the government and calling for democratic reform.
IBRAHIM: Many of them made actually their decision in prison, when… The same prison I was in.
And by the way, many of them have been in prison since my early studies in the ’70s and they are still there.
AMOS: Mona Makram-Ebeid was a member of parliament, now is a political commentator.
MONA MAKRAM-EBEID: They said they renounced violence, but they did not renounced their objective, and their objective is to overthrow this government and replace it.
AMOS: So, you don’t trust it?
AMOS: But others are listening to what they are saying.
GERGES: Egyptian Islamists have played a decisive role in Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.
They have provided the brainpower and the consideration that has really made Al Qaeda very effective and deadly.
GERGES: Terrorism will not end over night.
You are shutting off the tap in one of the major theaters that provided Osama bin Laden with some bloody senior leaders and also foot soldiers as well.
MOYERS: It’s impossible to know exactly what prompted this repentance on the part of the militants, or how long it will last.
But the Egyptian government this week sent a positive response, announcing they are considering the release of two leaders of the Islamic group from prison.
No sooner did President Bush announce the new federal agency called the Department of Homeland Security last week than pollsters went to work to find out what Americans think about the idea.
The President had barely said goodnight, the teleprompter turned off, than ABC News and The Washington Post reported that 69% of us approve of the new department.
This, before people even realized that the CIA and the FBI would not be included in the reorganization.
So help me it’s true.
The two departments, whose incompetence and internecine rivalry prior to 9/11 left them fumbling like a teenager on a first date, will still roam free of higher accountability.
Yet in one more triumph of hope over experience, people say they approve of the new bureaucracy; or so the polls report.
Better get used to this kind of thing.
We’re in a political year, and pollsters are going to be telling us what we think about subjects of which we know practically nothing.
It’s like asking us to judge the bread before it’s baked.
This kind of thing sends NPR’s John Ridley into a tizzy.
Quick, tell me what you think of Ridley’s commentary before you hear it.
JOHN RIDLEY: There’s nothing politicians love more than surrounding themselves with the American people. Every time they open their mouths they’re yattering about how “the American people” are demanding this, or the “American people” want that. But as a real live member of the American public, I’m always curious as to how these cats sequestered in Washington know with such exactitude what “we” really want.
Polls. Opinion polls. From newspapers to news shows to special interest lobbyists, everybody’s got collection stats to back their assertions on what the people want from our government and how the people wanna get it. No self-respecting politico would think of climbing up on their soap box without an opinion poll to use as a safety net. Which is okay, since polls are supposedly a scientifically collected sample of what you and I and that woman over there are actually thinking.
But if these polls are an accurate snapshot of exactly what’s going on in our heads, then how come there always seems to be a bunch of other polls that just as accurately support some other guy’s opposing position? How accurate are these polls anyway? To me, that “plus or minus” margin of error is just a fancy way of saying; “we could be right, but we might be wrong.” And I don’t mean to be a whistle blower, but as a guy who used to work for a polling organization, I can tell you data on the public opinion of important issues shouldn’t be collected by kids fresh out of college making five bucks an hour who couldn’t care less about accuracy and are just killing time ’til they make it in showbiz.
Truth is, I’ve never been a fan of the concept of polls; the idea of being reduced to a member of the collective consciousness. Yeah, all of us in this country share general concerns. But does a flat percentage answer to a broad based question really reflect the views of a politically liberal, fiscally conservative African-American man married to an Asian-American woman making their living in Hollywood? No more than it does the politically conservative, fiscally libertarian Danish woman married to a Middle-Eastern guy living in Iowa. So, really, all these polls are nothing more than numeric excuses for politicians to say what they want and claim they’re listening to what we say so they can tell us what we think we want to hear. But that’s just my opinion . . . plus or minus five percent.
MOYERS: Thanks John Ridley.
Now for the antidote to your angst.
Here it is, THE MAGIC OF DIALOGUE, from a man who has shown us that if we really want to know what the other person thinks, we have to learn how to listen.
Daniel Yankelovich is the grand ole man of listening, recognized the world over for careful and credible research on American values and public opinion.
He founded the firm Yankelovich, Skelly and White and the non-profit organization Public Agenda.
Public Agenda has long been at the forefront on social research on national issues, whose in- depth surveys captures the public’s deeply held concerns and attitudes.
Dan Yankelovich advises the NEW YORK TIMES and TIME Magazine, among others, and was recently named one of the ten most influential people of the 20th century in the world of public policy.
MOYERS: When we were talking earlier before the interview you — said that people feel very marginalized. What do you mean by that?
DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Well Americans want a voice, that — increasingly, I think one of the great changes of the past 20 years is this insistence, it’s not only a desire, it’s an insistence that the public has in having a voice in the decisions that affect their lives. And people feel they don’t have that voice.
MOYERS: But how can that be when almost everyone is subjected repeatedly to focus groups, to public opinion surveys — all these polls that are taken? How can people feel as if their opinions are not being collected, assessed, and executed?
YANKELOVICH: Well, if you’re looking to get votes, and if you’re looking to make promises and commitments — then you want to find out how to talk to the public. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to really listen, it doesn’t mean that you’re gonna be responsive.
I think the key is responsiveness. People don’t feel they have all these polls but, you know I’ve done a lot of market research, and in doing market research companies are responsive, they have to be to survive, but the political leadership does not have to be truly responsive.
MOYERS: Why? What accounts for that divide?
YANKELOVICH: Well you know you have — political life now — you have a lot of political consultants, the consultants tell you how to spin issues in order to get votes. And that’s not real responsiveness. You have the media that are concerned with the breaking news, and not these long term issues that we’ve been talking about. I remember years ago when Dick Cheney was in Congress, and we were talking to him about not listening to the public. He got indignant and he said, “What do you mean? I spend 90 percent of my time listening.” Well he wasn’t listening to the public, he was listening to the lobbyists, he was listening to the special interests. Making the assumption that the lobbyists are speaking for the people.
I mean you referred to me as “the ole fella” at the b–.
MOYERS: “The grand ole man.”
YANKELOVICH: Very hard to take, very hard to take.
MOYERS: It takes one to know one.
YANKELOVICH: But, you know in — that rule, — I don’t feel that AARP represents me. I’m a grandfather, I’m a parent, I have a broad set of interests, but I’m not payin’ AARP to represent my broad human interest, I’m payin’ them to represent my most narrow, selfish interests. So you have a politics in which individuals have a breath of humanity, but the organization of advocates and lobbyists are a terrible way to do politics.
MOYERS: One of the reasons I as a journalist see so much discontent is that is that we talk about these problems, we address them, we report on them and yet people feel nothing ever really changes.
YANKELOVICH: Well that’s why people feel marginalized. And it is the system that is very difficult to change. The democratic party used to have special interest politics as their ideological basis that–.
MOYERS: The labor unions and the working class and the….
YANKELOVICH: Yeah we were talking once to Walter Mondale about this where he…
MOYERS: Former Vice President.
YANKELOVICH: …where he felt that the sum of all the special interests add up to the general interest. It’s not true. It’s a fallacy, it doesn’t happen. I mean you know for someone in my position who’s been talking to Americans for 40 years, you see that what people are saying and what they’re feeling are not represented either by the political interest groups, the special interest groups, or by the media. So you have — you have these different Americas.
MOYERS: That raises the question, why are the shouting matches on television so popular with people?
YANKELOVICH: Well, one thing is they’re entertainment. I mean radio and television are entertainment media more then they are news media. And I think another thing is — I was thinking about the fact that the news side of things — the habit of breaking news, the journalistic predilection that what editors say, we go after the breaking news, probably takes about five minutes a day to cover the breaking news. But you have the media on for 23 hours and 55 minutes in addition to those five minutes. So you have I think, a preoccupation of the news media with certain conceptions that just don’t fit.
MOYERS: Your assumption is that people really want to know about the basic issues. And yet that flies in the face of people who kept reading the NATIONAL INQUIRER during the Clinton scandals with Monica Lewinsky when they said, “We’re tired of this.”
YANKELOVICH: Yeah, well I mean…
MOYERS: Is the popularity ….
YANKELOVICH: Oh Bill come on, you can be tired of it and be, and be fascinated at the same time. I mean gossip is gossip. The fact…
MOYERS: Touché, touché.
YANKELOVICH: …you have the fact that people are entranced by gossip, doesn’t mean that they’re not passionately interested in the issues that affect their lives. And they are, I mean they — I just can’t understand why there’s the assumption that people aren’t interested. They couldn’t be more interested. You have in the country this crust of mistrust. And that kind of pull because if people feel that their voice doesn’t count, then you know they’re not going to show the kind of interest — takes about 30 seconds to penetrate that crust of mistrust. And underneath it there’s this hunger for community, there is this passionate interest in the issues and in what’s happening in the country.
MOYERS: Mistrust, where does that mistrust come from?
YANKELOVICH: Well, it’s one of the byproducts of of the convergence of 9-11 and Enron is to make — have made the public feel very vulnerable, and you know as you — you would understand. But in that vulnerability they don’t feel that the people who are supposed to be looking out for their interests are exactly doing so more looking out for their own interests.
MOYERS: I guess that is one reason why Mr. Cheney, whom you referred to earlier, does not want an investigation of what happened last summer, when the investigative reports came in. And I guess that’s one of the reasons why he doesn’t — I don’t guess, I know, that’s one of the reasons why he doesn’t want a full investigation of the energy situation where the industry had access to policy.
YANKELOVICH: Yeah. Well see that’s what makes people so mistrustful, because the watchdogs are asleep. And…it isn’t just the FBI and the CIA, it’s the Red Cross, it’s the Catholic Church, it’s the Wall Street investment people that are supposed to be giving you objective advice to help you in your investments, it’s the auditing firms that are supposed to protect the public against the cheating.
So Enron — the aftermath of Enron — is not just a rogue company, it’s the watchdogs, the system. We have so many of them and they all seem not to function.
MOYERS: So when the watchdogs become lapdogs there’s nobody to bark for the people who have been exploited?
YANKELOVICH: Yeah, and you know not only lapdogs, but become sort of interested in — their own doggie pursuits — interested in the interests of the insiders, in the interest of the institution rather then in the people the institutions are supposed to serve.
YANKELOVICH: Yeah, and you know conflict of interest. It’s been meaningless the last couple of years in Wall Street and other places. It’s the concept didn’t even exist, hardly paid lip service to it, or just lip service. I think, Bill that is one of the big changes that the — everybody becoming insiders.
And then becoming interested, become concerned with their interest as insiders.
MOYERS: What’s your advice to people on reading surveys and polls? How do we become, as citizens, poll savvy?
YANKELOVICH: Good question. I think that if I had to make one single suggestion it would be to ask yourself the question, when you look at the poll results, is this an issue where people have made up their minds? You may not know, but if you see inconsistencies, if the wording of the question changes the response. And you can ask yourself, have you made up your mind about Social Security, or Medicare or — drugs for seniors, or more money for schools and things of that sort. If you haven’t made up your mind, the poll and the… people that are polling are like you and they haven’t made up their minds, you can’t rely on the poll results.
The Clintons were misled by poll results that showed that 71 percent of the public supported the Clinton healthcare plan when it first came out, and the real number — probing beneath the surface was something like 35 percent. That’s the difference between success and failure. But people hadn’t made up their mind about it. So that’s when polls can be very misleading.
MOYERS: Instead of polling for Time and the New York Times let’s say you were the assignment editor for either of those national organizations. And you wanted to ask your reporters to go out and cover stories that had been neglected by the mainstream media, where would you send them?
YANKELOVICH: Good question. The — I think the first thing — place I would send them would be to the — to inner city schools, because school reform which is so critically important to the country, is faltering in — implementation. Policy is okay, but in the implementation it’s falling down on the job. The — testings going on, but preparing the kids to improve taking the test, the resources aren’t being put in, they’re — not sure about how to do it. And when you take tests, and they fail then of course it’s even more demoralizing.
I would go to see employers in companies because after Enron, Americans are very nervous about their pensions… corporate pension as well as Social Security. And get some feeling — how real, how solid the corporate pensions really are, because it’s worrisome.
MOYERS: So school reform, pension security, what else?
YANKELOVICH: I would go to towns in Connecticut, like New Haven, and Hartford, because Connecticut is the richest state in the nation, and over the last decade — median family income has declined.
I’ve — heard labor union leaders refer to it as the hourglass economy — when you have ever increasing numbers of well to do professionals, and you have growing numbers at the bottom who are really out of the system, and who’s standard of living is going down, as in Connecticut. And you have this– what used to be the bulk of the population in the middle class, really kind of disappearing.
So that’s — you know in an in this hourglass economy if you have — if — we’re if the education system is geared for the people who finish four years of college, that’s 25 percent, what about the other 75 percent, what happens to them in a world economy? And with — elites, and experts who are more concerned with their own institutional interest. You know it’s not a good situation.
MOYERS: In THE MAGIC OF DIALOGUE you call on us to focus our imaginations on what kind of society we want. How do we do that?
YANKELOVICH: I think we do it by talking with one another. I think that there are truths that you get at through scientific inquiry, all of the facts, all of the experiments, all of the things we’re trained to do in a sort of technological, scientific world. But the human truths you don’t get at that way. The human truths come from seeing issues from a variety of points of view and perspective. From seeing it from the wisdom of different individuals. That’s real learning, that’s the kind of knowledge we don’t appreciate.
And we find when we bring average Americans together that they listen to one another, that they can contribute and that they can build, develop a vision of what they want our society to be like. And it’s really inspiring.
MOYERS: Well this has been very inspiring and informative to me. And I thank you very much for coming.
YANKELOVICH: Well, thank you very much.
MOYERS: There are different ways to listen to the hopes and fears of a people. Daniel Yankelovich does it through painstaking research and diligent dialogue that can bring out the best in us. My next guest does it differently and uniquely. It’s as if John Sayles has implanted in his characters a tiny listening device that sends back to him the unspoken language of life. The little murmurs and mumbles that are the secret code to what we really think and feel, what we would say if we thought anyone cared. John Sayles has made a career as a writer and director eavesdropping on what’s going on when nothing is happening. Take a listen to these old duffers in Sayles’ new film, SUNSHINE STATE, living out their retirement dreams in Florida.
[VIDEO CLIP FROM SUNSHINE STATE]
Golfer 2: Worse than wilderness.
Murray Silver: Endless raw acreage … land infested with crocodiles.
Murray Silver: Alligators, Crocodiles … if you’re talking about retirement bungalows, that’s not a selling point. Mosquitos that would stip you to the bone.
Murray Silver: Swamplands … they were asking ten cents an acre for. This was worse. The old name means in Seminole: “You shouldn’t go there.”
Golfer: But we bought it.
Murray Silver: We bought’em cause we knew…we weren’t sellin’ land. I mean what’s land…a patch of dirt…a tree. Who cares?
Golfer: Farmers care.
Murray Silver: Farmers…farmers are for T.V. ads. People with tractors, amber waves of grain. They shot it all in Canada. I’m talking about certified public accountants from Toledo with a fixed pension, and a little nest egg, who don’t want to spend their golden years trekking through the slush. Dreams are what we sell, a concept. You sell sunshine, you sell orange groves, you sell gentle breezes wafting through the palm trees.
Golfer: There were palm trees.
Golfer: In the brochures, there were palm trees.
Golfer: Stately ones.
Golfer: And when they came down and saw it?
Murray Silver: As long as the dreds stay three lots ahead of the buyers we were in like flint.
This was the end of the earth. This was a land populated by white people the way catfish…And almost over night… out of the muck and mangroves we created this…
Golfer: Golf courses?
Murray Silver: Nature on a leash.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: SUNSHINE STATE is John Sayles’ 13th independent film. My own favorite is LONE STAR, about folks I knew growing up in Texas. John Sayles makes his movies far from the frenzy of Hollywood.
He’s the dean of independent films, which means that to follow his bliss in making the movies he really wants to make, he must also make a living. So he’s been the script doctor on some of those Hollywood blockbusters that pull them in at the box office every summer. And he has himself written crowd pleasers like THE HOWLING.
His own films have won two Academy Award nominations, and his novels like UNION DUES and LOS GUSANOS have been hailed by the critics. He’s a man with his feet in many worlds but his heart it seems to me in one place: that slower, quieter world where ordinary people have their say with John Sayles’ help. Welcome to NOW.
JOHN SAYLES: Nice to be here.
MOYERS: Dreams are what you sell. I mean, that’s the very essence of American capitalism, isn’t it?
SAYLES: Yes, I think that something happened with advertising, probably right around the turn of the last century, around 1900, where it stopped selling things that we needed.
It stopped just telling you, oh, here’s a good soap, and started creating things that we didn’t even know we wanted. And certainly the history of Florida is the history of advertising. I think that the very concept of leisure in America is intimately tied up with the development of Florida.
People didn’t know that people other than the moneyed classes could have this thing called leisure, and developers went down there and bought land for pennies an acre because it was considered uninhabitable, created this dream of The Sunshine State, of the vacation paradise.
And then with the money they got in advance from people who hadn’t been down there, actually dredged the swamps and created the land that they eventually sold to the people who came down.
MOYERS: But you caught another Florida. I mean, you show that Florida, but you caught another Florida. The Florida I know, the Florida I’ve seen as a journalist, the Florida we all saw in the last presidential election when at the end of that election Darwin rules, the strong win, and much of what happens is done under the table.
SAYLES: Um-hmm. Yes, I mean, Florida has always been fascinating to me. It’s such a diverse state. There are people from the northeast, the midwest, different parts of the south, from Cuba, from Haiti.
It’s a microcosm of America in that way in that there are so many different people, and what’s interesting to me, so many different ways of seeing the world right next to each other shoulder to shoulder.
No surprise that not just from county to county but district to district people could see the world in totally divergent ways.
MOYERS: How do you know these people? I once suggested that you be drafted into journalism because you have such a good ear for people when…you know, when we go out we listen to people and we come back and write our stories or produce our films about them. How do you find these people? How do you know these people?
SAYLES: A lot of what I do is just listen, eavesdrop, talk to people, hear their stories, try to figure out where they’re coming from, and especially doing that without any preconceptions, just kind of emptying your head and trying to not be in an argument or a discussion with somebody but just hear what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, which is often as important as what they’re saying.
In the case of Florida, I’d been going down there since I was five years old…
MOYERS: From…Where did you grow up?
SAYLES: In upstate New York, Schenectady, New York. My mother’s parents lived in Hollywood, Florida, just north of Miami.
So I got to see that area before, during and after the Cuban revolution, which changed it enormously. And I got interested I think fairly early on what do people do when these huge sea changes happen, when your world is never going to be the same again.
Who are the people who can kind of go with the flow, and who are the people who just are too rigid? The factory closes and the town dies, or the fishery closes and you’re one of 12 generations of fishermen, what do you do then.
MOYERS: Yes, the people Daniel Yankelovich said are marginalized. I mean, they really feel unrepresented, they feel bowled over, they feel out of it.
SAYLES: Um-hmm. Well, I think powerlessness is one of the kind of scariest things in the world — that and feeling that nobody needs what you do, especially if you feel proud of what you do.
If you’re a coal miner and they shut the coal mines down, if you – in the case of SUNSHINE STATE, Ralph Waite plays a character who’s the first of his family to get out of the pulp mills and become an entrepreneur. He owns his own motel and restaurant. And that kind of American pride in being your own boss, and then within one generation corporate tourism comes in and kind of sweeps away his dream.
MOYERS: I think Ralph Waite…I think this was his best role. He doesn’t over play the blindness.
SAYLES: Um-hmm. Yes, he’s somebody who’s got diabetes and he’s gradually losing his sight. More of what’s happening, though, is he’s realizing the world has passed him by. The things he cared about, the people whose opinion he valued are gone, and what’s there left for him. And it’s very frustrating.
MOYERS: There’s another dialogue in the film that goes to that point, and I’d like to take a look at it now.
[VIDEO CLIP FROM SUNSHINE STATE]
Marly Temple: Hi Mama.
Delia Temple: Hey.
Marly Temple: Hey daddy.
Furman Temple: Trouble at the motel?
Marly Temple: Everything’s fine daddy…
Furman Temple: Why aren’t you over there?
Marly Temple: Got a day manager, remember?
Furman Temple: Those people steal from you blind if you don’t keep an eye on em.
Marly Temple: Got it under control.
Marly Temple: Are these new ones?
Delia Temple: I can’t remember when you were here last
Marly Temple: They all look alike to me.
Furman Temple: Place full up?
Marly Temple: Yes daddy, its celebration.
Furman Temple: How about the restaurant?
Marly Temple: They’re keepin us hoppin.
Furman Temple: Make it while it’s there.
Marly Temple: Yes I know daddy.
Delia Temple: Steven was callin for you.
Marly Temple: He knows I don’t live here.
Delia Temple: Nice talkin’ to him.
Furman Temple: Got a screw loose…deep sea diving.
Marly Temple: That was his father.
Furman Temple: Puts pressure on brain.
Marly Temple: Steve did a lot things to put pressure on the brain… diving wasn’t one of them.
Delia Temple: He says he turning over anew leave I certainly hope so. He had such promise.
Marly Temple: When did Steve ever have promise?
Delia Temple: When he had his musical group and you were with the circus.
Marly Temple: Wasn’t the circus…we stayed in one place.
Delia Temple: When you were performing in the aquarium.
Delia Temple: You were both so hopeful.
Marly Temple: Well we grew up. Daddy? There was a fellow from a development company over yesterday morning.
Furman Temple: Did you give him the boot?
Marly Temple: I was thinking this might be a good time if you ever wanted to sell…
Furman Temple: Watch them take that beach and turn it into a damn strip mall.
Delia Temple: Well its not exactly in pristine condition at the moment is it?
Furman Temple: Did you lift one finger to keep that place running?
Delia Temple: I have not.
Furman Temple: Then hold your peace.
Furman Temple: Worried about those birds.
Delia Temple: It is a severely compromised habitat. The sandhill crane have absolutely forsaken us.
Furman Temple: Good they don’t know better than to fly off to some place more accommodating to them than they deserve what they get.
Furman Temple: Now your seagull that like people they fight each other over every scrap they get.
Delia Temple: Your father is a strict Darwinian.
Furman Temple: She likes to throw her education against me.
Marly Temple: Anyway this developer…I told him you probably weren’t interested.
Furman Temple: You can bet your bottom dollar I’m not.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: That is so…that rings so true to me. I mean, the dream of…the motel is his dream, not her dream.
MOYERS: She’s inherited it, it’s her legacy, but she wants to get…she wants to get out of it.
SAYLES: Yes, I think very much…I’m always interested in the things that separate us. Is it race? Is it class? Is it education? In this case, it’s partly generations.
Ralph Waite plays a character for whom integration was a huge watershed in his life. He could have gone the less dramatic route and stood in front of his restaurant with an axe handle and said, no black people are entering this…this business of mine. And he didn’t.
And he’s always had mixed feelings about that. He’s now starting to realize maybe that wasn’t such a big deal. And to his daughter who is running his restaurant and motel now, it’s not an issue. Black people come in and out all the time.
His dreams and his nightmares are not her dreams and nightmares. And it’s very hard for them to get on the same page and talk.
MOYERS: It is a powerfully poignant moment in which the blacks in the film have to acknowledge that even in the triumph of the civil rights movement, they too have lost something. They’ve gained a great deal but they’ve lost something. You caught a very, very significant evolution in American life…let’s look at this one.
[VIDEO CLIP FROM SUNSHINE STATE]
Older Man: Prettiest beach on the Atlantic coast.
Young Man: Yeah. It is pretty.
Older Man: We’re gonna help save it. We’re having a protest rally on Monday over at the Groundbreaker.
Young Man: I’m just visiting.
Older Man: Believe me, they won’t know the difference.
Young Man: So, um, this is like an ecological thing?
Older Man: We’re trying to save an endangered species – us.
Young Man: Yeah, I heard about this place when I was kid, but I never…
Older Man: Forties, fifties – Lincoln Beach was it. Only ocean front in three counties we were allowed to step on to. Black folks – I’m talking about the pillars of the community – got together and bought this land. Built the houses. You’d drive through a couple hundred miles of redneck sheriffs, park your ride on the boardwalk, step out and just breathe. Over there was Henry’s Lounge. That place used to jump.
Young Man: So what happened?
Older Man: Civil rights happened. Progress. Used to be you were black you’d buy black. Jim Crowe days, you need your shoes shined, wanted to ride in a taxi to the train station, wanted some ribs, fish sandwich, chances are a black man owned the place you got it in. Now the drive-throughs serve anybody. But who owns them? Not us. All our people does is wearing paper hats and dipping out them fries. Only thing we’ve got left is funeral parlors and barber shops.
Young Man: Yeah, but now we can do anything.
Older Man: (laughs) Them that can get over do fine. Them that can’t are in a world of trouble.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: They can do anything but they don’t own very much. That’s what he’s saying. And he calls them an endangered species. What’s going on there?
SAYLES: Well, I think one thing that happened with integration all over America, not just in the south, was that there was a class of people, middle and upper middle class black people, whose economic foundation was based on segregation.
People came to their stores because they had to. They weren’t allowed in the other stores. They came to their restaurants, their hotels, their whatever, because they had to.
And just the timing of it was that when those segregation laws were struck down, they weren’t only competing with the white guy who owned the little motel on the other end of town, it was the beginning of the rise of corporate America. And you had to economically now compete with McDonald’s, with chain motels, with chain restaurants, with this kind of entity that could take three years of a loss to drive you out of business.
So one of the things that happened was that in certain communities with the rise of integration there was a certain disintegration of community that was forced before and now that it wasn’t forced it kind of dissipated.
MOYERS: Does Darwin win in the end? I mean, doesn’t the steam rolling power of American capitalism sweep everything in its way?
SAYLES: I think for a while, yes. I think what you…you see that people are very resilient, and that they have certain basic needs and desires.
Community is one of them. What you see now I think in America is that people may be rejecting geographical community as the way they define themselves. They may have communities of people who have the same religion.
There are people who are into collecting guns or stock car racing or a certain sport, or just people who stayed in touch with each other on the Web because they have the same ideals…
MOYERS: Who like certain movies.
SAYLES: Who like certain movies.
And you know, it’s a harder thing to keep up, but you know, I think people will find those ways around even if the economics change.
MOYERS: Somewhere you said that you like to make movies about cultures that clash, clashing cultures. What do you think is the biggest clash going on of cultures in America right now?
SAYLES: Well, I think right now there is the clash between what we are told and what’s really going on. And a certain kind of alienation that comes from that.
Certainly there have always been, you know, the kind of struggle of what are the ideals of America and what is really happening; what is written in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights and what is happening on the street or in the town level.
I think more and more now as media becomes corporate, there’s a bit of an alienation in that whatever little traditional values we used to have are being rapidly kind of taken over by stories, and stories that may not have much foundation.
A lot of what’s happening in SUNSHINE STATE, Mary Steenburgen’s character who plays this kind of sparkplug of the chamber of commerce, says at one point, is, people don’t realize how difficult it is to invent a tradition. She also says at some point, people hate history. And what I mean by that is that they hate the real history, because it’s often very tangled, it’s often not complimentary to who you are and how you got to where you are.
So in America what we tend to do is just rewrite it, to sanitize it, to make it into a story. Once it’s made into a story, and especially in a tourist town, when you’re selling it, when you’re…you know, the Navajo people used to do the rain dance but they have the tourist rain dance and their own rain dance, at what point when you’re putting the paint on for the hundredth time, does it start to affect the real rain dance, does that history not mean anything to you anymore.
And by history I don’t just mean who shot who back in 1830, I also mean your own family history, your own roots in an area. At what point do all our values become media values or consumerist values.
MOYERS: So it’s not just who owns the land, who owns the beach, it’s who owns the stories, who owns the…
SAYLES: Who owns our conception of who we are and what that is?
MOYERS: One doesn’t see very many of these characters in Hollywood movies anymore.
SAYLES: Yes, I think, well, that’s a long tradition in Hollywood, was creating an iconic America. If you think of the Andy Hardy community, that may have existed somewhere during the Depression in America, but it wasn’t everybody’s every day life.
To a certain extent those were created as an escape from every day life. And that’s something that can actually be a valuable thing for people sometimes, to have that escape.
MOYERS: And if Mr. Smith went to Washington today he’d go as a lobbyist not a representative…
SAYLES: Exactly. Exactly. But I do think there’s something else that movies can do, which is…and what I try to do in several movies including SUNSHINE STATE, we live in such parallel communities, such isolated parallel communities.
They may be separated by race. They may be separated by class. One phenomenon you see in SUNSHINE STATE is this new phenomenon of the gated community, which is a choice to live separated from the rest of the world and the trouble and the contention and everything like that.
What I can do in the movies is take the audience and give them an access into each of these little communities and give them a bigger picture. Those golfers have a bigger picture. But I hope the audience by the end of the movie says, wait a minute, you know, I see this and this and this and this, and I can connect some dots here. There’s a pattern here.
And if these people are ever going to get more of what they want they’re going to have to start thinking in a larger way, not just their little narrow community.
MOYERS: One of my favorite scenes in the movie is where what’s said is not really what’s happening. They’re out on the bayou in the canoe and it’s just dialogue, it’s just…. And yet if you look closely at their faces you realize there’s something else going on behind those eyes. Is that right?
SAYLES: Yes. I think very often I’m interested in not just what people say but for the audience, because you can see things that the characters can’t see sometimes. In that specific case, it’s that character that Tim Hutton plays and the character that Edie Falco plays.
Just the mechanics of rowing a canoe, you don’t look each other in the eye. So they’re both open, they can’t see each other’s faces. They’re just getting to know each other. They can open up a little to each other. But, and we can see both of their faces but they can’t see each other’s faces. And then we can see what’s around them, which affects how we take what they’re saying.
MOYERS: There’s this running current of loss in this movie. It’s a wonderful movie. It’s a joyful movie on many levels. But there is this running current of loss, particularly of the geographical community where…. I mean, I grew up in Marshall, Texas, a town of 22,000 in northeast Texas.
We all lived within walking distance of each other. Richard Blaylock’s daughter, the richest man in town, and I, the son of the poorest man in town, one of the poorest men in town, went to the same high school. We went to the same ball games. We saw the same movies.
We shared that town. That town was ours even though they were rich and we were not. Today people don’t, as you say. They don’t share the same town.
SAYLES: And I think that any progress, whether it’s the integration, whether it’s economic progress or whatever, you always have to look at it very carefully and say, what are we losing when we’re gaining this.
Is there, yes, this looks like a prize, this looks like where we want to go. But is there something that we’re going to have to give up in order to get this?
Very often, unfortunately, we don’t…we don’t have time to stop and think or question what somebody else is proposing. It just happens, and then we wake up one morning and something we really valued is gone.
But you know, certainly in a small southern town, Mary Alice, who plays the mother of Angela Bassett’s character, is talking about her days as a debutante in this black community. Those are gone. They’ll never come back.
At the same time, she wouldn’t wish back the days of segregation at all. So I think progress is…and as our lives go on, it’s always a very, very mixed bag. And nobody gets to start from scratch. You all…all, you know, people start with some kind of baggage. Every new administration in Washington has to deal with the mess that was left or whatever was left over from the old administration.
We walk out into the world, there are people who don’t like us automatically just because of who we are, and it may be something our grandfather did or great, great grandfather did. And maybe it would be good to cut some of that baggage behind, but you lose something in the processes.
MOYERS: One of your characters says, a handful of folks make all the deals and the rest of us work for them. And another one says, the little guy ain’t got a chance. Is that the way you see America today?
SAYLES: I actually do think that an awful lot of things that happen in America, you know, certainly there’s been a lot of talk about campaign reform and our last couple of elections, even people who were formerly opposed to it embraced this idea that really what their constituents were, who they were, were the people who could pony up enough money to keep them in business as politicians.
An awful lot of things don’t come under public review. And I think we just have to accept that, but then we have to also question that and say, well, is that the way that it should be? Is that what America is supposed to be about?
And then we also have to say, well, who are we to complain if the things that do come under our review we don’t even bother to pay attention to?
MOYERS: [You mean] sometimes the politicians are disappointed in us?
SAYLES: Absolutely. Absolutely. I know plenty of good hardworking sincere politicians who feel like, well, why didn’t they come out and vote? Why didn’t they come to the meeting? You know, why didn’t they pay attention?
And why are people so obsessed with these kind of buzz issues that are symbolic instead of paying attention to things that we really can agree on maybe or work out together.
MOYERS: What your films say is this country is really up for grabs. I mean, America is always up for grabs.
SAYLES: Yes, and I think that that’s…there’s something great about that. You know, I always say if there are no final victories there are also no final defeats.
MOYERS: Well, certainly not in your films. Thanks very much, John Sayles, for joining us tonight.
SAYLES: Thank you.
MOYERS: SUNSHINE STATE opens in New York and Los Angeles next Friday, June 21st, and then will be out across America on July 4th. Go see it. That’s it for tonight. I’ll be listening to you on the Web at PBS.org. For NOW, I’m Bill Moyers.