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"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

November 27, 2007

Norman Solomon Interview

Here's a conversation I had recently with Norman Solomon about his new memoir Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America's Warfare State. If you liked this, hidden in the archives are similar talks with Matt Taibbi and Chris Floyd.

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Where did you grow up?

SOLOMON: I was born in DC, and grew up in Maryland in what was at the time a New Deal community—Greenbelt, which is still there. We moved around a bit, and then when I was eight my family moved to Calcutta for a year and a half. After that I landed back in suburban Maryland in 1961, when I was ten. I stayed there until I went to college.

What was it that took your family to Calcutta?

My father was in the foreign aid program, and went over there on what was a forerunner to AID.

He was an economist who believed in the beneficent possibilities of operations research—better plant utilization, efficiency, all of that. This was part of the ethos of the trip out there. As a child who would have been in third and fourth grade, I saw people on the street who were just mindblowing to me. Thinner than thin. Very different than the American suburbs. I wanted to be back in the land of hotdogs and baseball cards.

My parents were liberal in their political perspective. Happy to hear from our flat in Calcutta that Kennedy had been elected rather than Nixon. My father worked for the government through just about the entire 1960s at the census bureau and did some travel overseas for aid programs. I can't speak for him, but in retrospect—he's now in his eighties—I think he feels he was largely suckered. That the layers of corruption went much deeper than he had realized at the time, both in the US and in foreign countries.

Consciously I didn't there was much of anything wrong with the main institutions of the United States until I was in my mid-teens. The first breach in the retaining wall was the civil rights movement, as I became aware of it. The first demonstration I ever participated in was to desegregate an apartment building in 1966 when I was fifteen. The next was an anti-war demonstration the next year. It was the Vietnam war that convinced me the system was run by people who were capable of the unspeakable.

Who drew you into these things? Usually it's not a complete self-invention project.

I would say my parents, especially my mother, because she was politically active as a liberal Democrat, encouraged me to consider the civil rights movement as something that would be meaningful. But I got into the anti-war movement pretty much on my own. It was part of the zeitgeist. I learned there was a demonstration coming in New York. And there was a special train leaving Union Station in DC to Penn Station, and I got on the train...and just never got off.

I remember vividly getting onto the train car, and there was a guy running a mimeograph machine. Obviously mobile media wouldn't be remarkable in the days of laptops and blackberries, but it was really something to me then. And it was turning to print a special newsletter for the people going to New York. The newsletter was being run by a guy named Bill Higgs, as I went on to discover. He had represented James Meredith at Old Miss, and had been pretty much exiled from Mississippi as a lawyer. His life had been in danger. And I got to know him. He represented H. Rap Brown. He was instrumental in the lawsuit Hobson v. Hansen, which was instrumental in the desegregation of the DC schools, which were essentially Southern-style.

Silver Spring, where I lived, wasn't rich. It wasn't poor, though. Just diverse. The high school was huge, and drawn from different neighborhoods and different economic strata as well. There were also what we called the collegiates, who wore brown shoes that you put a penny in, but you wouldn't.

I started into high school as a collegiate. But as my hair grew longer, the hyper-confinement of high school physically felt similar to the effort to confine us mentally. I remember there were these conferences on American civilization, and one of the speakers was General Lewis Hershey, who was head of the US Selective Service system. When we heard him speak we hated him. He was trying to justify the draft. I remember writing something at the time that he was puffed up life a bullfrog. These were the voices of death. And even though I was just sixteen, I felt that very strongly.

Later when I saw the film Hair, it certainly evoked that for me. At the end, when the guy is walking into the big hatch of death of the airplane to take him to Vietnam. That was very much of the era. I knew friends of my older brother going to Vietnam. I'd read Ramparts Magazine with full color photographs of Vietnamese children being burned up, years before daily newspapers were making much of a ruckus about such things. I was reading the Washington Post, and the editorials were very supportive of the war, but Nicholas von Hoffman was a columnist for what became the Style section.

A few months after the demonstration in New York was the march on the Pentagon. There was lots of confrontation in the air. That's what yielded the pictures of people putting flowers in the rifle barrels of the US Army troops. That also was very much a bellwether for what was happening.

How important was it to have a genuine counterculture? The one thing that seems to be missing now is to have some place to go, mentally or physically, that has a whole set of shared assumptions and a different way of looking at the world that sets itself up in opposition to the status quo.

I think there were real pluses and minuses to what we call the counterculture. We're not only worse off because it doesn't exist in such a state today. There was a hell of a lot of rigid ideology in the late sixties and early seventies. A lot of it was reworked old left dogma that I don't miss at all. And it was a very patriarchal sort of a scene. Feminism didn't intrude on the counterculture until 69 or 70, with ferocious battles still ahead. That was one debilitating dynamic. Also there was overrealiance on drugs, and a naive belief there were inherent qualities in drugs that were humanistic or even political.

As for positives, one was simply the people. Through Bill Higgs, I got to meet Dick Gregory in 67 or 68. And you learn from role models like that—not that they're being didactic, but just because you see how they are coping with the world and bringing what they can into the world. Like so many other people, Gregory was that for me.

I remember going with him and Bill to a radio station once around the time of riots in 68. And you could see this guy, who could have been making a lot of money as a comedian, being a part of movements—even though you could tell he was physically exhausted from everything he did, dragging himself out there.

I particularly remember his line, "If Jesus had lived today, instead of having little crosses around our necks, we'd have little electric chairs around our necks." A comment like that is so illuminating.

Lots of people made a big impression on me. Draft resistors, people who were refusing to go to Vietnam, seeing by example how people dealt with stuff. I worked for a mainstream local paper during my time between high school and college, and I interviewed a Quaker guy my age, who was about to go off to prison for a couple of years because he just wouldn't go into the military. I wrote the story and thought about it a lot.

So you go off to college after that, and what did you find college to be like?

I found it to be boring. I went to Reed College. I drove westward on the first Earth Day, spring 1970. Reed has a reputation as being very avant-guard, but there'd been a political purge the year before, and a lot of professors who were seen as troublemakers were gone shortly before I got there.

It was also my mindset. The war in Vietnam was still raging. I didn't find my professors that interesting. There was too much drugs and not enough politics on campus. The atmosphere of the campus seemed very disconnected. Disconnections between people, and disconnections between the campus and what was going on in the country and world.

I got drawn into the community radio station there, KBOO, was very involved in writing and activism. Wrote a lot, was involved in anti-nuclear organizing. I wrote a lot of fiction, most of it not very good. I was reading Joan Didion, James Jones, Norman Mailer, John Steinbeck, Donald Barthelme, John Hersey.

I remember once getting a long roll of paper, just hundreds and hundreds of yards, and just rolling it through the manual typewriter. I went to the Republican national convention in 1972. There were great demonstrations outside, very little of which was covered by the media. I wrote a little book that came out a few months later called "In the Belly of the Dinosaurs." I just looked at it.

Talk about an undercovered political moment—I really knew nothing about that convention until I read about it in your book.

One person I wrote about in that was Danny Schecter, and at the time he was talking about how undercovered the demonstration was. It was more creative, and certainly more non-violent that the 68 Chicago convention. Over a thousand of us went to jail. Every night was a different theme of theater in the streets, including a non-violent march against death. But the mass media had decided what was going on wasn't important.

I remember after being maced, I ran into a bar, and on the TV was John Chancellor saying, "There's nothing much going on in the streets outside the convention..."

The received image of the period after that the Vietnam war blunders to a close, and then everybody loses their focus. Is that how you experienced it?

I saw a real community focus, from food co-ops, to germination of non-commercial radio stations, associations, environmental organizations, and the women's movement and gay rights movement. But there was a severe falloff in the capacity to really mobilize. Lots of urban weekly tabloids folded or lost circulation. There was a loss of focus after US troops came out—which is not to say when the war ended. Gerald Ford was not much a foil.

Yes, as a figure of evil, he left something to be desired.

He presided over the fall of Saigon. Later there was a growing period for the anti-nuclear movement, which of necessity gained momentum under Carter, and then the movement against intervention in Central America. I think there was a reawakening of Gandhi's tactics, at the Seabrook nuclear power construction site and elsewhere. I was involved in organizing a group in the Northwest that did civil disobedience at an operating nuclear power plant named Trojan. Our actions were modeled after the Clamshell Alliance at Seabrook. It was an eye-opener for me. It was part of a whole campaign of public education. At one point in 1978 there were about 240 arrests. It raised a lot of questions about nuclear energy all over Oregon. From my standpoint it was very illuminating to see people could alter the entire state's view on whether nuclear power was viable.

And then I noticed there was this thing up the Columbia River called Hanford. And it took a couple of years of work before a lightbulb kind of went on for me about the nuclear weapons monolith.

Have you ever found any presentation about nuclear weapons in a book or a movie or wherever that really works for an audience? Because it is something most people actually find boring...because it feels so gigantic. It's like, "Well, the sun's shining again today." It's hard to say, "Let's have a demonstration to turn off the sun."

It's very hard to address, particularly in isolation. It has a whole economic and historic set of roots. To some extent I'm now writing this against my own will. But it's evasive to avoid it. The next probable war, with Iran, is partly about the right of the US to have nuclear weapons and the other country to have no such right. When I was in Tehran for ten days in summer 2005, I asked probably more than a hundred people the same question. And the people I was traveling with started making fun of me because I did it so much and always in exactly the same way. I would say, "Are you in favor of the Iranian government developing nuclear power for electrical generation." Next question: "Are you in favor of the Iranian government developing nuclear weapons?" For the first question, all but one person said yes. They all wanted nuclear power. To the second question, they almost all said they didn't want nuclear weapons. But after fifty years of denying that the nuclear power industry and nuclear weapons are connected, the White House, for its own convenience, is now saying that they are connected.

I came back, having been in the anti-nuclear movement, remembering that the nuclear industry has been trying since Eisenhower to tell us how great nuclear power is. Atoms for peace, etc. It was also a way to say that fission was not just bad. That's where the Eisenhower push came from. It was antithetical to Hiroshima. Remember, the nuclear age was announced with a lie, when Truman said Hiroshima had been bombed and was a military base—in the same breath. Even since, they've been trying to pretty this thing up. The phrase "too cheap to meter" was used early on. They wanted to make nuclear seem not ominous but uplifting. Now it's supposedly going to protect us from global warming.

It's the swiss army knife of technology!

And the nuclear power industry has finally found a population of believers—in Iran. They really saw it as a cheap clean sort of energy, better economically and environmentally. Now the US is bitching about it. Well, who taught them? The Shah got the push to develop nuclear power from Washington.

There's something else to it, too. I wrote a piece in 1980 for In These Times about a trip to the Nevada testing site. I've interviewed a lot of bomb designers, bomb testers, people at nuclear weapons plants in managing capacities. Generally they're technophiles and can-do believers. They can break this! It's a sweet problem, as Oppenheimer said.

What then drew you into media criticism?

It was really the combination of my efforts at activism and my experiences as someone who'd been a reporter. I could look at both sides. I had the basic reporting skills. And when I was involved in anti-nuclear activities I was soon an expert on media bias at the local papers and TV stations. I think this is true of activists generally. The disconnect between the coverage and what they see with their own eyes...

Their own maced, burning eyes.

After a while that split becomes gigantic. For me it was dramatic as I wrote about issues of nuclear power and weapons. I had this experience during the 1970s seeing the Oregonian newspaper getting a lot factually wrong and also spinning things. I was writing op-ed pieces about nuclear issues, and in 82 flew into LA and dashed into a TV studio to talk about a book on nuclear power. And I ended up meeting a guy who was also a guest on the show, this guy named Jeff Cohen. And we were chatting and got to be friendly. Over the next couple years we talked a lot, and then he told me he was thinking of starting a group called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. So that really drew me into it. One thing led to another.

I think FAIR has had a huge effect. It seems to me that before FAIR there was Noam Chomsky, and Ben Bagdikian had written a book. And Michael Parenti and a few others. And that was mostly it, in terms of doing it in a serious, systematic way.

I think individuals can accomplish very little on their own. A sense of united effort and the multiplier effect of combined energy is crucial. FAIR has been a catalyst in that way. In think FAIR has had a lot of effects on people that no one will ever know about, including people who worked at FAIR. It's made it possible for a lot of people's insights to blossom and be shared. That, in contrast to the conventional top-down view of how things change, is really how things happen.

Also breaking down the division between media criticism and activism has been a really important ongoing achievement from FAIR.

I think we have to make sense to people and also sustain ongoing alternatives. You can't beat something with nothing. And to a large extent that's been the problem of progressives in the US. As Woody Allen says, 80% of success is showing up. And the right wing can always show up in force because of the huge money and momentum that they have. And we have to offer people some clear tangible evidence that we're asking them to grasp at something more than straws, that it's possible to go in a very different direction.

We've learned you don't always have to go back to square one. If it's quacked like a duck a thousand times, it may in fact be a duck. The worst part of the liberal tradition is that every time there's a new war, it has to be examined without a sense of the past. Hopefully we're learning from experience that structures seem to behave in similar ways over time.

I was on with Tom Snyder after Unreliable Sources came out, right around the time of the Gulf War in 91. I was talking about the lies that got us into Vietnam, and how the Pentagon has fought wars in the past, and he cut in and said, "but that was then, and this is now!" A split second later, a commercial.

Posted at November 27, 2007 10:55 AM

To some extent I'm now writing this against my own will. But it's evasive to avoid it.

this... book? interview?

Posted by: hapa at November 27, 2007 05:45 PM

Yes, Jonathan imprisons prominent reporters and activists and makes them answer interview questions. Dastardly!

Posted by: StO at November 28, 2007 05:42 AM

My mother was a reporter for a small-town newspaper about 90 miles north of Harrisburg, PA. It always irked her that the press referred to three-mile island as "the worst nuclear accident" in this country. They had a problem, they fixed it, nobody got hurt, right? Now, ma was an intelligent woman and a political liberal, so far as prudence and comfort would allow. But PP&L, the local power co., got to her early. She even had a recipe for something called PP&L stew. She was sent to all their press conferences, held by friendly people, who all believed themselves that nuclear power was the way to a cleaner, safer, more beatific future. They gave film strips to our schools, which we were shown in science class, explaining what a force for good it was. Clearly it had no connection with those scary nuclear bombs that had us all hiding under our desks.

Posted by: Maud at November 28, 2007 07:59 AM