Alan Grayson Tells It Like It Is
Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
This week on Truthdig Radio in collaboration with KPFK: Alan Grayson tells us why he’s running again for Congress; wild-man cartoonist Mr. Fish discusses his new book; a couple of holy men talk about biblical ignorance; and Truthdig editor-in-chief Robert Scheer talks about President Obama’s rejection of Elizabeth Warren.
Alan Grayson discusses why he’s running again for Congress
An interview with wild-man cartoonist Mr. Fish
Madison Shockley and Greg Carey on biblical ignorance
Robert Scheer on his latest column (Obama turning away from Elizabeth Warren)
Peter Scheer: Welcome to Truthdig Radio, a collaboration of Truthdig.com and KPFK Los Angeles. I’m Truthdig Managing Editor Peter Scheer. This week we have wild-man cartoonist Mr. Fish; a couple of holy men talk about biblical ignorance; and we’re waiting on a call from Alan Grayson. But until then, we are joined by Truthdig Editor—my boss—Robert Scheer, who’s here to talk about his latest column and the development that we’ve just had of Obama turning away from Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that she was helping to set up for the administration. That bureau is under assault by various forces including Wall Street, which would like to see it watered down, diminished and go away. And once again Obama has sided with the pressure from the banks, or yielded to the pressure from the banks, to go away from our favorite choice to run that organization, because she has been too critical of the very people who have brought us to our economic knees. Robert Scheer, welcome to Truthdig Radio.
Robert Scheer: Hi. And you’re talking about Elizabeth Warren, of course. …
Peter Scheer: Yes, Elizabeth Warren. … Actually, we’re going to come back to this in a minute. We are joined by Rep. Alan Grayson, or former Rep. Alan Grayson, of the United States Congress, who would like once again to enter the Congress to represent the good people of Orlando. Welcome to Truthdig Radio.
Alan Grayson: Thanks. It’s great to be on radio free L.A.
Peter Scheer: Yes. So I’m a big fan, I should just, in full disclosure, just say. And mainly because, like a lot of other people, because you are known for speaking your mind and for bringing that to politics, for saying things that need to be said. Things like, about the Democrats’ approach to the Republicans: “I think appeasement doesn’t work, and we need to be tough,” which you said in a recent TPM interview. You’d like to bring that style of politics back to Congress. Is that right?
Alan Grayson: Yeah. I mean, listen: If I’m not going to speak my mind, whose mind would I speak, right?
Peter Scheer: Yeah. [Laughter] Well, why aren’t there more representatives in Congress—and especially in the House where you should, one would think, have a little bit more liberty—why aren’t there people saying the truth?
Alan Grayson: Last year I said that the two-party system was devolving into the “lazies and the crazies.” And I think if anything, it’s gotten worse; on “The Ed Show” last week, I said it was the “meanies and the weenies.” [Laughter] That’s where we are right now, you know. We’ve got people who want to strip away Social Security, strip away Medicare, strip away Medicaid; and then we’ve got other people who want to compromise with them.
Peter Scheer: You said recently—well, you were quoting yourself—you said, “It’s exactly like I said: the Republican health care plan: Don’t get sick. The Republican unemployment plan: Go find a job. The Republican homelessness plan: Move in with your relatives. They have no answers to anything.” Do the Democrats have better answers?
Alan Grayson: Yeah. You know, honestly, if you try to solve a problem there is some decent chance that you might actually do it. And that’s what the Republicans seem to forget. We have 23 million people in this country who can’t find a full-time job right now. The Republicans aren’t even interested in solving that problem. All they’re interested in doing is increasing corporate welfare, and basically bribing companies in the vain hope they might actually create some jobs. That hasn’t worked for three years now. We’ve got 50 million people in this country who can’t see a doctor when they’re sick; they don’t have health coverage. What do the Republicans plan to do for them—tort reform? I mean, they’re not even taking a stab at this stuff.
In the case of the Democrats, you know, the Democratic plan is pretty clear: We need to rebuild America; we need to spend money on rebuilding our schools, our bridges, our highways; all this public infrastructure that we have that’s falling into decay, literally into decay—so the highway in Minneapolis literally falling into decay. In the case of people losing their homes, we instituted a plan here in Orlando that required the banks to go into mandatory mediation with the homeowners before they could take the homes away. And we had housing counselors; I used my earmark money to have housing counselors here locally that actually would sit down with people, go through their situation, and find some way to save their homes. We brought in a group called NACA, which organized to coordinate with all the banks and have refinancing fairs all over the country. We dropped foreclosures here in Orlando from 3,000 a month to 1,500 a month in a very short time.
There are solutions to problems if you actually try to solve these problems. Even the so-called deficit problem—the so-called deficit problem could be solved overnight if we simply brought the troops home, and that’s costing us about $200 billion a year. Right now, you could not only reduce the deficit, but you could make everyone’s first $35,000 of income tax-free, if you simply brought the troops home. Sure, there’s answers to problems; but you have to actually try.
Peter Scheer: You were really good on the financial industry when you were in Congress. We had the news this week that, as expected, Elizabeth Warren will not be posted to the job that she wanted, to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that she’s been setting up. We have a guy, who seems to be a good guy, nominated instead to lead it. But is this just another cave to the banks from—hasn’t Obama just been bad on the banks? I mean, I don’t want to get you into trouble, but you know, where’s the good news here? The mortgage renegotiation hasn’t really panned out; his administration is filled with people from Wall Street; and here we have the one sort of hero of the left cast aside in this latest decision.
Alan Grayson: It’s sad. It’s very sad. I think Dick Durbin said it best last year—he’s a senator from Illinois—he said “Wall Street owns the Senate.” And that’s not the only part of the government that it seems to own. We have our economic policies determined by Wall Street; we have our foreign policy determined by the military-industrial complex; we have our energy policy determined by big oil. Is it any surprise that we’re in the crapper?
Peter Scheer: Yeah. Well, so why do you want to get back into politics? I mean, like you said, you can do a lot of good, but you have to deal with a lot of—a lot of crap.
Alan Grayson: Well, you know, the fact is, I don’t see a lot of other people who are trying to do what I’m trying to do. I’ve got a good life; I’ve got five children who are in school, they’re school age; I was the only member of Congress to have five children in school. I didn’t really enjoy going back and forth to Washington, D.C.; I’m actually kind of allergic to it. But we accomplished a great deal that helped people in the district and people nationwide. I mean, right now, this second, if you have a pre-existing condition of any kind, even cancer, and you haven’t had health insurance for six months, you can sign up for a federal program and get coverage in Florida for $374 a month. That was impossible—impossible—six months ago. And that’s because of what we did in Congress, because I fought for a health care program that would actually try to cover the 50 million people in this country who have no coverage.
And I know what that’s like; I mean, you know, my wife had a stroke a few years ago; the insurance companies won’t go anywhere near her. There’s a lot of people who are like that, not just her; there’s a lot of people who are in exactly that situation, and now they can get coverage. We have over 40,000 people in this country who die every year because they don’t have health care coverage. That’s a lot of people. There were over 100 in my district alone. Now all those people have, at least, a fighting chance; and I think that’s a tremendous accomplishment … people say is it worth it, I don’t know … I don’t really think about is it worth it to me personally; I had a good life before, I’ll always have a good life, for as long as I’m alive. You know, life presents all sorts of opportunities to you. And I do seize the day.
But I didn’t see any way to do the kind of good that I was able to accomplish when I was in Congress—I didn’t see, and I don’t see any way to do that outside of Congress. Some people can, you know; Howard Dean ran for president, lost, dusted himself off, and became chairman of the Democratic Party. And he did a lot of good; he basically laid the foundation for our taking back the House and the Senate and the presidency. So it’s not to say that it can’t be done, but I think there was plenty of unfinished business when I left Congress, and I’d like to do it again. And a lot of people seem to feel the same way; I mean, within 48 hours over 2,000 people had come to our website, CongressmanWithGuts.com, and made a contribution. Those are people who are putting their money where my mouth is, and I appreciate that. I get calls all the time from people; I described some of them in the email that I sent out explaining why I was running again. A woman called me a couple weeks before I announced, and she told me that her husband was in the hospital; he was a veteran, but the Veterans Administration wouldn’t cover his problems; he had multiple organ failure; and he had a pre-existing condition; he’d had problems going back to when he was 30, and now he was in his mid-50s, 56. And I said I’m concerned by what you’re saying, but I don’t know exactly what I can do to help you; I’m no longer in Congress. And she said, what we want you to do, my husband and I, is we want you to run again.
Peter Scheer: So, you were savaged in the last campaign for some negative advertising. Do you have any regrets over that?
Alan Grayson: Well, let’s look at the advertising that was run against me, OK?
Peter Scheer: OK.
Alan Grayson: The sewer money advertising that was run against me by special interests and lobbyists, who didn’t even have to give their names. They said Alan Grayson is a liar, Alan Grayson’s a loudmouth, Alan Grayson’s a national embarrassment, Alan Grayson is a dog, and Alan Grayson is an evil clown. They actually had somebody who sort of looked a little bit like me dressed up like a clown, walking around on the screen for 28 seconds before the disclosure. You know, honestly, I don’t think … [Laughter, inaudible] should be complaining about my ads, OK? According to Politico, 20 percent of all the negative ads from the lobbyists in the entire country ran against me.
Peter Scheer: Wow.
Alan Grayson: I represented one-third of 1 percent of the population of America, and they dumped 20 percent of all of their ugly sewer money … to make me look bad.
Peter Scheer: Why do you think … why did they target you?
Alan Grayson: Because they couldn’t buy me.
Peter Scheer: Hmm.
Alan Grayson: And so if they can’t buy you, they try to destroy you.
Peter Scheer: So, who tried to buy you? I mean, did you get pressure from Wall Street, from other places?
Alan Grayson: Well, of course. But …
Peter Scheer: Is that just routine in Congress?
Alan Grayson: … business expenditures provided health insurance companies and big polluters. The health insurance companies were very disturbed that I introduced legislation [HR 4789] to let anybody buy into Medicare at cost: If you can afford it, if you want it, then you’ve got it. It was a four-page bill, and I got 80 co-sponsors in a week for that bill. And they saw that it was moving, so they had to get rid of me. They spent over a million dollars just by themselves.Peter Scheer: Wow. So this time around—I was reading in Talking Points Memo an interview with you, and … they said that you had a better shot at it because of redistricting. Are you more confident going in?—Or also because you just feel like the issues are on your side?
Alan Grayson: Well, look. If I have a district that is largely Democratic, I think even the sewer money is going to realize the futility of wasting their money trying to knock me out of a Democratic district. If there’s one thing that’s clear at this point, it’s that Democrats like me, because they know I support them. And if Democrats vote, then Democrats can win. So I think a lot depends upon the kind of district we see. In the last race, it was exactly the opposite; I represented a district that had been Republican for 34 years straight. The Democrats had managed to lose 17 elections in a row [Laughs] for that district before I won in 2008. And it was badly gerrymandered, and is badly gerrymandered, because the lines haven’t changed; it goes 140 miles northwest into horse country, for no reason other than to drag every conceivable Republican that they can find into that district. And the Republicans took advantage of that in the last election. But it’s a whole new round of redistricting; we’ve passed constitutional amendments, called Fair Districts Florida, that prohibit the Republicans—who still dominate the process—from districting on the basis of political considerations; and we’ll see if their much-wanted respect for the Constitution actually applies in this particular circumstance.
Peter Scheer: You have a kind of a remarkable—well, not kind of; you have a remarkable personal story. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you worked as a janitor to put yourself through Harvard; is that right?
Alan Grayson: Yeah. I cleaned toilets, and then after that I was a night watchman on the midnight shift. I had to walk the rounds.
Peter Scheer: How did that affect your politics?
Alan Grayson: Well, I remember what that’s like. How could I possibly forget. I mean, you know, life has been good to me in all sorts of other ways. But it was a hard thing to walk around outside in the bitter cold in Boston, when it was, you know, zero or even below zero, at 2 o’clock in the morning and make my rounds. I still remember.
Peter Scheer: You’ve also been great on the corruption in these wars, and the just unbelievable waste of money, and disappearance of money. And we keep hearing that the war in Iraq is over, and yet we have thousands of troops still there. Are you confident that these wars—we have a new timeline for the war in Afghanistan that has us there past 2014; I mean, you know … what is your take on this situation?
Alan Grayson: Well, you know, by the end of President Obama’s first administration, we’ll have twice as many troops in Afghanistan as when it started. That’s not what people expected or wanted, at least among his supporters; I’m not speaking about the other folks. It’s farcical to say that the war in Iraq is somehow over when we still have 50,000 troops there. The one ray of hope is that the Iraqis are starting to put their foot down; they don’t want to be an occupied country any longer, and they’ve told the U.S. troops that they have to get out, and somehow or other we feel like arguing with them about it. So the Iraqis have said all troops have to be gone by the end of the year, and the Defense Department and the State Department are both sort of trying to weasel out of it. We’ll see what happens. We’re still paying the bills; we spent $157 billion last year on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at a time when unemployment was close to 10 percent. In Florida it’s, oh, it’s about 13 percent. We spend $500 for every single man, woman and child in America on the war in Iraq. And that’s just the appropriated funds; the non-appropriated funds are even more than that. They’re more than the appropriated funds. Joe Stiglitz, who’s a Nobel Prize winner, calculated the cost of the war in Iraq already at $4 trillion. That’s $13,000 for every man, woman and child in America; and you know, for my family of seven, that’s almost $100,000. I want my money back.
Peter Scheer: So, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I wonder what kind of—you know, part of your campaign is that we need someone like you who stands up and really says it like it needs being said. And that the Democrats are, you know, wimpy and need a good kick in the butt. And I wonder what kind of pushback you get from the Democrats; you know, just as the special interests don’t want you in Congress, maybe some Democrats don’t want you in Congress.
Alan Grayson: Well, actually, no. I mean, for the most part, I’m saying what other people are thinking but for one reason or another feel that can’t say. You know, there’s a little room off to the side of the floor of the House, where the Democrats have one room called the cloakroom; the Republicans have their cloakroom. I always got a lot of high-fives from people [Laughs], and sometimes standing ovations …
Peter Scheer: Wow.
Alan Grayson: … in the Democratic cloakroom after I gave a speech and they went into the cloakroom. You know, they’re all … almost all of them are really actually good people. There were a few blue dogs who I thought were hopeless. [Laughter] But for the most part, they’re all people with a conscience. And some of them, you know … for really personal reasons, often, just feel they can’t be as outspoken as I am. But everybody enjoyed the show.
Peter Scheer: The hostile feeling in this country towards Washington—it’s like “dirty word,” right? And the feeling of how corrupt it is—and you’re telling us that in Congress, these people are all, they’re all good people?
Alan Grayson: Well, the Democrats. I …
Peter Scheer: Oh, OK. [Laughter]
Alan Grayson: … I sent out an email about this, actually, a couple of hours ago, on this very subject of what kind of mind-set would lead some people to want to strip away other people’s Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security. But you know, in the case of the Democrats—like, I guess, the other side, to some extent—there’s a lot of career politicians. I was never elected to anything in the first half-century of my life, so I sort of came to this with a clean slate. Also, I had to take a very large salary cut to do this job, and for most people it’s more money than they’ve ever made in their lives, and they want to keep the job because they want the salary, they want the pension; I never felt that way; I was liberated from all of that. I was liberated from the need to beg lobbyists for five and ten thousand dollar checks, because as I said before, thousands of people came to our website, CongressmanWithGuts.com, and made contributions. So they couldn’t, you know, control me that way either. But there are a lot of people who are very much under the thumb of the lobbyists; and there’s also a certain number of people who are just shy. It’s funny that they get elected to office, but they can’t make the kind of speeches that I’ve made and they can’t do the kind of things that I did on TV or on the radio; they just don’t have it in them. But I always felt a lot of moral support from the Democratic members of Congress, from my colleagues, and that was true almost in every case. And it was, you know, I think, less true [Laughs] in other parts of the Democratic Party, other parts of the Establishment. But those who knew me generally liked me and enjoyed what I was doing and appreciated the importance of what I was doing, which is basically to stand up for what’s right. And you know, I really felt sort of liberated to do that. You know, I never felt that it could ever be a career for me; I’m just too old.
Peter Scheer: [Laughs] Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but thank you so much for joining us.
Alan Grayson: All right. And thank you, and thank your audience for caring enough to listen, and thank you all for having both a head and a heart.
Peter Scheer: His name is Alan Grayson, he’s running for Congress; find out more at CongressmanWithGuts.com.
This is Kasia Anderson, associate editor at Truthdig, and I’m here with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer. And we are very pleased to be talking with the esteemed Mr. Fish, otherwise known as Dwayne Booth, whose new book, “Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People,” is out from Akashic Books—and who will also be, we should add, having his own one-man show at the Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica at Bergamot Station on August 6th, for all you locals listening. How’re you doing, Dwayne?
Mr. Fish: I’m doing great. How are you doing?
Robert Scheer: How come—you know, let me ask you—this is Scheer. You know, you …
Kasia Anderson: Who else would it be?
Robert Scheer: … you have the raunchiest, scatological, you know, cartoons; the wildest, the … and every time I talk to you on the phone, you’re Mr. Reasonable, you know, in the suit. What are there, two Fishes?
Mr. Fish: Ah … I’ve heard that so often. And I was actually just in New Hope [Pa.] doing a sidewalk selling of the book. They set me outside on just a rickety table; I looked like a fortune teller out there with my book. And, yeah, I looked like, ah … you know, a benign, Christian…
Kasia Anderson: Nerd. [Laughs]
Mr. Fish: … you know … glasses, big smile on my face. And I found that all I was attracting were, you know, old, elderly, retired people who came up to me and they thought that it was darling that I had my book there [Laughter], and that it was neat, and then they would look at it …
Kasia Anderson: And swell!
Mr. Fish: … and, yeah. I had a woman who actually opened it and said that I should be ashamed of myself.
Robert Scheer: Oh! [Laughs]
Kasia Anderson: Well, I just opened one page at random, and I see a young girl with an appendage that she shouldn’t have. So, yeah, it seems like any …
Robert Scheer: All right, first of all, we have to set some ground rules here. This is Pacifica Radio, and the FCC can come crashing down. So we’re not going to use …
Kasia Anderson: I said “appendage.” Calm down.
Mr. Fish: Right.
Robert Scheer: OK, but we’re not going to use the words that Mr. Fish routinely uses in his cartoons …
Kasia Anderson: Yes, but we will lay an enticing groundwork for people to just have to get their hands on this book, so.
Robert Scheer: … OK. …
Kasia Anderson: How’s that, Dwayne?
Mr. Fish: Yes, put it under your mattress when you get it.
Kasia Anderson: I should also mention: Congratulations to Mr. Fish, because he’s been a two-time winner of the Society of Professional Journalists’ [Sigma Delta Chi] editorial cartooning award.
Mr. Fish: I’m an establishment now. I mean, all this talk about me being …
Kasia Anderson: Yeah, you’re no longer a renegade, and …
Robert Scheer: Well, that is interesting. Having worked for the Los Angeles Times for 30 years, and having been a great friend of the late Paul Conrad, who won three Pulitzers, a number of other prizes, and so forth … for listeners, they should know that the Sigma Delta Chi Award is probably the most important award in journalism. Because it’s really coming from your peers; it’s very much sought-after. And the fact that a guy as crazy, wild and nutty, and radical as you are should get that prize shows—what? That they’re opening up a little bit, or that they’re willing to entertain—what do they tell you when you go to these conventions, like in Las Vegas, to get your award? Have they actually looked at your cartoons?
Mr. Fish: Yeah. They’ve looked at them, and I think that more and more, you know, the assumed insanity that I depict is a reflection, more than me interpreting in some sort of outlandish way what’s going on.
Robert Scheer: So it’s the world that’s pornographic, not you?
Mr. Fish: Exactly.
Robert Scheer: I see, OK … Mr. Fish: I’m just …
Robert Scheer: … you’re just the messenger. Let me ask you, and then I’ll let Kasia take over—but I’ve known a number of cartoonists in my day: the great Jules Feiffer; we run [Mike] Luckovich, who I think is very good, on our site; Ed Sorel, who I think is a raving genius. You know, there’s—and help me here, Dwayne—but you can go back to the French Revolution; who was it, Dumont, or …
Mr. Fish: Daumier.
Robert Scheer: … Daumier, and I remember as kid even, going to the museum once, they had an exhibit of his work. And you’re really—and I’m not flattering you, now—I think you’re really up there with the greats. And I was just curious, what drives you? I mean, I first saw your work in, I guess, the LA Weekly and Harper’s, and we’re really privileged to be able to feature the uncensored Fish, Mr. Fish, on Truthdig. But you know, really, where do you get your views? What … where do you come from? Who are you? [Laughter]
Mr. Fish: Well, I think what differentiates me from other cartoonists that I’ve spoken to, and just looking at their work, is that I go after … I address political problems that are in the culture, but not from a political point of view; I like to respond to tragedy emotionally, and I don’t feel like I want to fight a particular political party by standing in line with another political party. You know what I mean? I mean, for me, it’s a humanitarian stance. I don’t consider myself left, I don’t consider myself right; I get hate mail equally from both sides. And I think that a lot of political cartooning is really just arguing an existing, establishment point of view. It’s basically getting your side of the aisle to, you know, you’re cajoling them to gently agree with themselves. And that doesn’t change anything.
Robert Scheer: You’re being a little unfair, Mr. Fish … and please, don’t do a cartoon where you show my head up my behind, or something … [Laughter]
Kasia Anderson: It’s imminent! You’re asking for it. [Laughter]
Robert Scheer: … I know I’m asking for it, but you can hardly say that Ed Sorel, or Jules Feiffer, or certainly Paul Conrad were party-line guys. But there is, I will say, to your work, an element that you haven’t addressed: There’s a wildness to it. You’re kind of like Allen Ginsberg and the beats. There’s an extreme perception here, and again … that’s why I brought up your gentle demeanor, and so forth, your bookish style. [Laughter] But where does this wild, crazy, raging passion come from?
Mr. Fish: It probably comes from just the tradition in fine art to serve the art when you’re creating something. So if you want to do something that you think should be excessively beautiful, then you just pull out all the stops. And it’s the same thing with political conversation, and stuff; I don’t have any … I’m not going to self-censor … how can I say this? …
Kasia Anderson: How many times are you asked this question, in particular? Out of curiosity? Explain yourself! What is it that you do?
Mr. Fish: [Laughs] Yeah, usually it’s fighting words that ask me to explain myself, and it’s easier to respond. [Laughter] But yeah, I mean, it’s like I said. Especially when it comes to points of cultural discussions and political discussions, I think people tend to pull their punches and be a little bit too polite, when in the way I see things, it’s politics that screw things up more than anything else. Organized ignorance is the most destructive sort of thing. And I don’t think that … I have a certain impatience for walking that line and allowing somebody the right to their opinion if it is—if I can see down the road that it’s going to allow fracking to happen, for instance. [Laughter] Here in Pennsylvania … there’s just, like I said earlier, there’s humanitarian issues that demand the response of a human being. And if there is something dire and something desperate going on, then you should be screaming a little bit.
Kasia Anderson: Well, back to your book, “Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People.” I was a little bit startled when I first opened the book and saw that your introduction kicks off with a discussion of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “On Death and Dying,” and the five stages of grieving. Can you elaborate on your choice there?
Mr. Fish: Well, I knew that I wanted to have a book that wasn’t just, like, the 101-things-to-do-with-a-dead-cat, zippy-cartoon type collection, where it was just either arranged according to the year the cartoon was produced, or anything like that. So I was hoping for some organizing principle to have a framework. And it happened almost immediately; I mean, I sat down and I said, why do I do what I do?—which I guess you just asked me; maybe this will help answer that. And I just felt the weight of the world all of a sudden, because [Laughs] that’s what I feel like I do, you know? Sort of like attack anything I can, or try to understand everything I can about existence. And then it just popped into my head, and I was just like, oh, the five stages would be interesting to break this down. And then I realized, in an instant, if I reversed the order and began with acceptance, and went to depression and then bargaining and then anger and then denial, it actually explained my process of work. You know, you wake up and you accept the fact that the world is how it is; and that is reality. And then with that acceptance comes a certain amount of depression, because it’s not all great, and there’s a lot of suffering that’s going on. And then you have to bargain your way through how you’re going to affect change or not affect change. And then you’re angry because what you do, it’s very incremental; you know, saving the world and avoiding doomsday. And then at the end of the day, you’re in denial in a couple of different ways; you’re in denial with the fruitlessness of your quest to change things, and you’re also in denial that you’re ever going to be able to do that. And the only way you’re going to be able to get up the next morning is if you are in denial. And that allows you to sleep, and then you can begin the process all over again.
Kasia Anderson: Is there anything that you won’t cover in your editorial cartoons? Are there any topics that are off-limits to you, that you’re aware of?
Mr. Fish: Um … the metrics system. I, just, that’s very boring to me.
Kasia Anderson: I knew I was going to get something like this. [Laughter]
Robert Scheer: Tell me something about your experience with publishers. You were with the LA Weekly … first of all, I mean, when did you learn you could draw, and how did you get into this whole thing … and then you’ve been at Harper’s, you’ve been at LA Weekly, and then what happens? Ownership changes, and you get pushed out, or how does it work?
Mr. Fish: Right. For the LA Weekly, yeah, that’s what happened; it was … the ownership changed, and then … I was just no longer needed there. But let’s go back to the drawing part of that question, because one thing, I’ve always been able to draw; and I always found an audience with that ability. So it was built in. So all through school, starting in grammar school, the teachers would actually bring me around and show my sharks and skeletons—which is what I was drawing a lot of then—to different teachers and to different faculty, because they thought it was really, really good. And I used to draw all of these things on black construction paper with white chalk, which nobody was doing at that time. And so I found that if you can draw really, really well, at least you’re going to stop somebody to admire the craft of what you do; and if you can stop somebody long enough, you can engage them in some sort of conversation.
Kasia Anderson: Well, we have the whole conversation right in front of us in your new book, “Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People.” And local L.A. types can stop by Bergamot Station on August 6th at the Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica to see more of your work. That’s all we have time for today. I’m Kasia Anderson, this is Truthdig Radio, and Robert Scheer and Mr. Fish, aka Dwayne Booth. Thanks for your time, Dwayne.
Mr. Fish: Thanks a lot.
This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Kasia Anderson, associate editor. I’m here with Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer, and we’re speaking with the Rev. Madison Shockley, who is a contributor to Truthdig and is also the pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California. And also joining us is professor Greg Carey, who is professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Welcome to both of you gentlemen.
Madison Shockley: Thank you, Kasia.
Greg Carey: Thank you for having me.
Kasia Anderson: And Robert Scheer will have his own angle on religion, I’m sure. But I wanted to get going with Greg; one of your recent articles for HuffPost Religion—it’s from July 7, I believe, and it’s entitled “What Does the Bible Actually Say About Marriage?” And from what I’ve read from your HuffPost columns, you’re kind of a FactCheck.org equivalent for Scripture, for readers out there who may think they know what the Bible says about this or that issue, but it turns out they may not know the specifics. So can you give us some context about your marriage article, to get the conversation started?
Greg Carey: Sure. Well, I love the way you described me; that’s really flattering because, to be honest, the real mission of what I was trying to do is help people be honest about how we use the Bible. In our public discourse, there’s lots of talk about biblical family values, and the right shape and size and composition of a legitimate family. And obviously, the Christian right has been very much involved in trying to defend traditional male-female marriage. So what I wanted to do is ask, very simply, if you open the Bible from cover to cover, what’s really in it? And the simple fact is that a lot of things that people assume the Bible teaches consistently, it either doesn’t teach at all or it hardly ever teaches. And in many cases, the Bible, different parts of the Bible, deliver different kinds of teachings on different subjects. So it was important to me to lay that out. One of the reasons that’s important to me, as I look back I’m aware my mom raised me as a single parent; she was divorced. And there was a great stigma that she lived with when she tried to be a part of churches or religious communities; it just wasn’t acceptable. And so I’m very much in tune with the fact that lots of people in our society live under a burden of shame or inadequacy that’s been imposed on them, unfortunately, by the churches. And as a biblical scholar, if I can lend some help to that, then that’s really great with me.
Kasia Anderson: Right. And also, this is obviously a timely subject given the national debate on gay marriage. Do you have any thoughts on that—or also, Madison, if you want to chime in?
Madison Shockley: Well, I think Greg has made a tremendous contribution to the conversation by just laying out the facts. And what we’re really dealing with is not so much Christianity, but American civil religion. And American civil religion has Christian attributes. But it’s clear from the beginning, whether you’re talking about Manifest Destiny or whether you’re talking about American exceptionalism, that any time that the gospel of Jesus Christ is in conflict with American ideology, within this umbrella of American civil religion, American ideology—or the American Dream, if you will—trumps the gospel every time. And so this marriage vow is a very good example of a recent iteration of American civil religion: that family as it’s defined, quote unquote, “traditionally,” and marriage and so forth, don’t come from the Bible, but they come from this American ideology of how Americans perceive themselves. And so we need to make a clear distinction that what people talk about as Christianity in America is not the gospel of Jesus.
Kasia Anderson: Mm-hmm.Greg Carey: I think Madison’s on to something important when he describes civil religion, because the sexual ethics you often hear preached as being, you know, the biblical teachings are really the Victorian ethics of the 19th century. They can’t be found in the Bible. And yet they became the norm at the same time that civil religion really began to flourish in this country, before and after the Civil War. And I think that’s a critical point; it’s not a matter of going to our theological sources and saying, you know, what are our core convictions; it’s more a matter of justifying those convictions by picking and choosing verses from different parts of the Bible to make them fit.
Madison Shockley: I’d love to get Greg’s reaction to the part of the marriage vow that was recently stricken but was in its original form, where the proprietors of the pledge said that slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly, a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American president. He talks in one of his other articles about Christianity and slavery; what these folks forget to point out is that slaves didn’t live in a two-parent household, not in America, and that the father of many of these slave children was the slaveholder. And so that was an interesting error on their part. But talk about, if you would Greg, about how Christianity and slavery don’t have as great a history as we’d like to think of it.
Greg Carey: Well, sure. I grew up in Alabama. And that part, that preamble to the pledge that you’re describing … we have a saying in the South: You just can’t argue with logic like that. [Laughs] It’s beyond [a] logical sort of refutation. For one thing, as you pointed out, in the South slaves didn’t even have rights to their own bodies. And they didn’t have rights to control their own sexuality. So the idea that you’d have these happy nuclear families in slave households is just baffling to begin with. More baffling is the thought that someone in 2011 could look back at slavery and describe it as somehow a better state than things that are going on now. And you’re right to ask the question about Christianity’s implication in slavery. The Bible was written in a world where slaves were everywhere. In the New Testament world, in some cities, slaves may have made up as much as half the population. And so it’s not rare to see references to slaves or slave owners in the Bible. And unfortunately, it’s not clear that the Bible ever directly opposes slavery, or encourages slave owners to set their slaves free. So when we had slavery debates in the United States in the 19th century, those debates divided the major denominations; the Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists all split along slave lines, and those unions weren’t affected until well into the 20th century. But the problem is that the advocates of slavery could argue persuasively to many people that they had the Bible on their side. The Bible’s a big book; it’s diverse, and there are passages of the Bible that early Christians used, and American abolitionists used 18 centuries later, to resist slavery. You know, there’s the case of a slave named Onesimus who seems to have run away from his owner Philemon, and Paul says I want you to treat him like a brother, not like a slave. What does that mean? But …
Madison Shockley: But Paul did send him back. He didn’t tell him to …
Greg Carey: That’s right.
Madison Shockley: … he basically complied with the runaway-slave rules that governed in ancient Rome and governed in the early colonies.
Greg Carey: That’s exactly right. And it’s a case where, when I’m teaching this material with students, I often say, “It would be great if Paul had said what we wish he’d said.” And it’s possible to read Paul optimistically, but it’s not obvious …
Kasia Anderson: I’ve got a question along those lines. I’m sorry to jump in in the midst of your discussion, but you just picked up on something that’s anticipating my next question, which is whether both or either of you has a feeling about these types of reading strategies in which, for example, you have a more fundamentalist stance which kind of picks and chooses, maybe, certain scriptural passages and highlights them, perhaps, above all others to point to and say look, it says right here in the Bible that X, Y and Z—that gay marriage is not allowed, that this is what marriage is, this is what celibacy is. Do you have a feeling about kind of a reading style, whether it’s based on your own denomination or just your own personal take on the Bible, that would either condone kind of a close reading strategy like that, or do you prefer to say, OK this is a big book; there’s a lot of history in there; ultimately, men had something to do with writing it, and we’ve got to take it in context?
Madison Shockley: Well, I think you’re right to connect this question to the slavery question. Because what most modern and mainline Christians, and even in the abolitionist movement in this country, have done is found those passages that indicate that human dignity—that indicate that human freedom which was God’s original purpose in giving a moral capacity to human beings—can be found in the Bible. And you still have, you know, Exodus, where God speaks from the burning bush and says “Set my people free.” You know, God is against that kind of human bondage. And so we also need to understand that Christianity doesn’t have all the answers. And that’s what the slavery discussion tells us; that we can find some impetus, but it was clearly the Enlightenment and the social movement of that period that gave us the abolitionist movement in its full form. And so even today, the discussion about marriage—we have to decouple it from a strictly Christian conversation. And that’s why recognizing the opposition is really coming from an American civil religion perspective, and not a Christian perspective, is helpful in that debate. So that we can say, well, that’s one of your sources, but that’s clearly not the beginning and end of the conversation.
Greg Carey: My columns with Huffington Post were really aimed at people who are Christian and care about what the Bible teaches, care about what the churches are teaching them, and may experience that as dishonest or even harmful. But the reality is that over the centuries, Christians of almost every stripe have looked at aspects of the Bible and said, you know what? Times have changed, culture has changed; we can’t simply drop these ancient texts into our modern context without some process of critical reflection. And Robert had raised the issue, before we began talking, about usury, or lending at interest. You know, the Bible is overwhelmingly negative about lending at interest. It’s a way to keep the poor poor, and make them even more dependent. And until well into the Middle Ages, Christians, at least in the Western churches, weren’t allowed to participate in the banking industry. But you know, as the Renaissance developed and global trade started happening, and Christians started to see, wait, lending at interest is also one of the ways that you can generate wealth—it became very normal for a Christian to participate in the banking industry, right? I think that Madison’s correct that the same is basically true with slavery. It just wasn’t acceptable, and so Christians started reading the Bible differently, and …
Madison Shockley: And that same impulse for human freedom that allowed us to abolish slavery can now allow us to establish marriage customs, and marriage laws and marriage practices and marriage definitions, that allow gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people to live freely and to form relationships that are recognized by the society and by the government.
Kasia Anderson: I should just check in right now and say this is Kasia Anderson; you’re listening to Truthdig Radio with Robert Scheer, as well. And we’re speaking with professor Greg Carey and the Rev. Madison Shockley. And let me toss it over to Bob here, because I know he wanted to expound a little on this usury question, or perhaps just economics in general.
Robert Scheer: [Laughs] No, I think it goes to the selective quotation. And I know, Madison, you were involved, or still are involved, with the Jesus Seminar. And I go to you all the time for wisdom on this. But what can we … because the question is raised, “What would Jesus do?”; I think it’s an interesting question for discussion. And yet, the economic-justice aspect of Jesus’—the writing that’s attributed to Jesus, the sayings attributed to Jesus—are never brought up, it seems to me. And I don’t want to be one of those who selectively picks. But doesn’t it seem, in the main, that whatever can be attributed to Jesus does have a component of concern for the poor and social justice?
Madison Shockley: Absolutely. I mean, there’s no way to look at Jesus—you don’t even have to be selective [Laughs], in looking at Jesus, to understand that his core message was “Blessed are the poor,” but it can also be read as “Bless the poor.” That if you are not poor, God’s preferential option for the poor requires you to be a blessing to them, because God has blessed the poor. So you don’t have to be selective in reading Jesus. And if you really dig into—one of my favorite passages is in Luke where Jesus, in my view, endorses a minimum wage. He talks about workers—day-laborers, actually—who start at the top of the day and work for 12 hours, and those who show up at the last minute and work for one hour, and they’re all paid the same. And you never hear that talked about either.
Greg Carey: Not that way. I would add that I entirely agree about the emphasis on the poor in Jesus’ ministry. I’d also add, a special interest for me is in the emphasis on Jesus’ embrace of a group that the Gospels call sinners. And again, I’m highly motivated by the role of the churches in society, and I’m concerned that churches are so concerned with being respectable that they don’t know how to relate to the rest of society sometimes. But the Gospels describe Jesus as simply keeping company with sinners. He doesn’t scold them, he doesn’t force anything upon them; in fact, the Gospel of Luke even says sinners liked to hear Jesus. And what would it be like if religious communities responded to people in society rather than trying to impose these 19th century values on them? I think all of that is thoroughly present in the Gospels that you don’t hear much, and part of my job is to try to get that message out there.
Kasia Anderson: Well, and you do it well on Huffington Post’s Religion section. And we’ve been speaking with professor Greg Carey and the Rev. Madison Shockley, who is a contributor to Truthdig. And that’s all the time we have for today’s discussion, but I’m sure these questions will continue to be discussed on our site. So thanks, guys.
Madison Shockley: Thank you very much.
Greg Carey: Thank you.
This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer, and I’m joined in the studio by Robert Scheer, my boss and life coach. Dad, welcome to Truthdig Radio.
Robert Scheer: Yup.
Peter Scheer: We were speaking at the top of the show; we had a little bit of technical difficulties getting Alan Grayson on the line, so we were interrupted. But we’d like to come back to the discussion of your column, which I feel like is a really good—and I know I obviously have a bias here. But I think you write a lot about the economy, the Clinton administration, the Obama administration, the various officials, Timothy Geithner, Elizabeth Warren, et cetera, et cetera. But this column in particular, I think, really captures sort of the basic wrong of the Obama administration. And it was about how Elizabeth Warren, who conceived of the idea of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and fought for it and won it and was working to create it, was not allowed to run that—was not even nominated to run that organization for fear of not winning confirmation. And I just want to read what I think is really the money quote from your column. Quote, “Obama’s refusal to take the fight to Senate Republicans by nominating Warren should be taken as the vital measure of the man. This gutless decision comes after the president populated his administration with the very people who created the financial meltdown.” Take it away.
Robert Scheer: Well you know, it’s crazy-making, really. First of all, the Republicans are worse than the Democrats; they don’t even want a consumer protection agency, they don’t even want a director. And the fellow, the former attorney general of Ohio, Richard …
Peter Scheer: Richard Cordray, who’s…
Robert Scheer: Cordray, is not—he’s good; he’s a good guy, you know?—they’ll probably reject him as well. But Elizabeth Warren had become a symbol, just like Brooksley Born was in the Clinton administration, of being an incredibly informed person. These are two brilliant lawyers who really knew the stuff better than the old boys’ club of Greenspan and Geithner and Summers and all that; these are really sharp people, very well educated, leaders in their field, who had a moral conscience. And Brooksley Born warned Clinton, these derivatives are spiraling out of control; you’re servicing Wall Street; this is madness and we’re going to have a meltdown—and of course, we had a meltdown. And then Elizabeth Warren played that same role for Obama. Obama appointed all of these veterans of the Clinton administration and Wall Street, beginning with Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner and all that, to occupy the key positions. Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs partner who has the key role now in the reregulation, who was the guy in the Clinton administration who defended radical deregulation. And yet one lone voice, Elizabeth Warren—brilliant, on the money, on the target, and she pushes for this consumer protection. And consumer protection, you see, is already defanged; it already has to report to the Treasury. It excludes—this is something that we were discussing earlier in the show, about usury and interest—there’s no limit on interest. You can charge a college kid 30, 40 percent interest on a student loan, on his credit card. There are not really any great teeth to this thing. The thing that was going to get something bigger was to have a public—a director that had some public presence, who sounded the alarm and said to the banks, hey, watch this cheating people with your fine print; give some protection, some transparency …
Peter Scheer: Someone you can trust, as well.
Robert Scheer: Yeah. We needed her there precisely because she was a thorn in their side. And what Obama did, he could have taken this fight—first of all, it’s amazing that you can appoint all these Wall Street sharks to key positions, and that’s not controversial in the Senate. Republicans and Democrats [said] oh yeah, yeah, we’ll sign off on that one, we’ll sign off on that one. You have this lone voice speaking for the average person, and that’s going to be controversial …
Peter Scheer: And is that even a confirmation fight those politicians want? Do they want to be against the person who’s out to protect the consumer?
Robert Scheer: Well, that’s why I think that Obama should have fought this good fight. And the problem with Obama—let’s cut to the chase here—is, you know, he turned down public financing when he ran. We all looked the other way, we—I put myself in a group that supported him. He then turned to Wall Street and had the biggest contributions from Wall Street. He needs them once again, yes. And so he plays the populist rhetoric, just like Bill Clinton did. But at the end of the day, Wall Street is getting the governance that they pay for. And that’s really what’s, sadly, at work here. Now, again, at the end of my column, once again—and people can say I’m naive—I’m holding out the hope that Obama will take the battle on, make sure this consumer agency at least has the attorney general from Ohio, who’s …
Peter Scheer: You’re right, who’s not … yeah, who’s not a bad guy.
Robert Scheer: … not a bad guy. But I say, this is not an auspicious beginning by throwing Elizabeth Warren off the boat. And you know, we have just got to face up to the fact. It’s just, again, I’d bring it back to that discussion of what Jesus would do, earlier in the show. I mean, the fact of the matter is there’s great suffering in this country. There’s 50 million Americans who have lost their homes, or are in imminent danger of losing their homes. We have an enormous number of people who are unemployed, way beyond the official statistics, and we have the banks that have been bailed out getting fatter and fatter, and more concentrated in power. And there’s no control over the $600 trillion market in derivatives, which is a time bomb that will explode in the future. And so you have this bizarre situation where we have a great pretense of democracy, and we have progressive-sounding Democrats taking on reactionary-sounding Republicans; but they all seem to want to do nothing to disturb the greed of Wall Street.
Peter Scheer: Let me just ask you, because we’re running—you have about 30 seconds here. But I just wonder, you write again and again about Brooksley Born and Elizabeth Warren being treated unfairly; is it a coincidence that they’re women?
Robert Scheer: No, it’s not. Both of these people—women—had to struggle against the male hierarchy in their colleges and in their professions; certainly in law, certainly doing business law. And … but, you know, one of the sad things is you can have a, come from a background of struggle, as both Clinton and Obama did, and then abandon the people you came from and succumb to a false notion of the meritocracy, which basically has serviced the elite. In the case of these two women—and I think being women helped, although with Hillary Clinton we haven’t seen a similar process—they have stuck to their guns; they are fighters, and they have a conscience. And it is really a shame that Elizabeth Warren has, as I say, been abandoned in the same way that Clinton abandoned Brooksley Born.
Peter Scheer: Well, we’ll have to leave it there. For more, check out the column, “Sorry Elizabeth, Wall Street Said No,” by Robert Scheer on Truthdig.com. That’s it for this week’s edition of Truthdig Radio. Find us next Wednesday at 2 or anytime online at Truthdig.com. Thanks to our guests, Alan Grayson, Dwayne “Mr. Fish” Booth, the Rev. Madison Shockley, professor Greg Carey and, of course, Robert Scheer. Thanks to our board op Jee, engineer Stan Misraje and Alan Minsky. For Kasia Anderson and the Scheer brothers, thanks for listening.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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