Friday, May 20, 2011

Bill Moyers: Time is Running Out (for our US Democracy)

Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer with Robert Scheer, and we are speaking with the legendary Bill Moyers, whose newest book is “Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues.” Thanks so much for making the time.

Bill Moyers: I’m glad to be with you.

Robert Scheer: You know, let me begin—this is Robert—ah, with a sort of longer-run question. I know things are pretty bad now in terms of deception, and so forth, but hasn’t it ever been so? And particularly in the area of foreign policy, I was thinking of the warning of George Washington and his farewell address, where he said “beware of the impostures of pretended patriotism.” And coming down through the years, we generally have been lied to about foreign policy, national security matters. Is it really much worse?

Bill Moyers: I don’t think so, except it’s just—there’s just more of it. We have, now, not only the government lying, but we have 24-hour media; you’ve got Fox News, you’ve got Rush Limbaugh, all dealing in misinformation—disinformation. And there’s just an incredible fog—a smog, you might say—surrounding us now.

Robert Scheer: Yeah, but you know, we on the Internet—and this is what Truthdig is all about—we’ve had about 60 million people come to our site, and we’re by no means one of the larger ones. But we think there’s a redeeming quality to this new, new form, that people can weigh in—professors, experts, whistleblowers. Do you see a positive side to it?

Bill Moyers: Oh, yes. I think it’s our last, our last hope, actually, is a free Internet with democratic, small “d” democratic access. I think that our administration—the Johnson administration, in which I served for the first 2 ½ years—would not have gotten away with a one-sided explanation of Vietnam if we’d had the Internet at that time. There were, as you know, brave reporters out in Vietnam trying to get back to the public with news, but they had to work through their organizations; it took a while; and too many of their bosses in Washington were comfortable with the administration’s propaganda line. So yes, I think the Internet is the best hope we have, if we can keep it. And of course, as you know, as we speak, the Internet … net neutrality is under siege from powerful corporate forces.

Robert Scheer: You know, let me ask you about those corporate forces. One of the great promises of the Johnson administration was the War on Poverty, and the hopes of redressing some of the class imbalances in this society. They’ve gotten much more intense. And we now have a situation where, according to [Joseph] Stiglitz, the top one percent of the wealthy control 40 percent of the wealth in this country. What do you think Lyndon Johnson would make of this current situation?

Bill Moyers: Well, of course, that’s impossible to say. But at heart he was a populist. When he started out as the son of a man who’d been laid low by the Great Depression of ’29, Lyndon Johnson—and populism had been held hostage by corporate power, and railroads [affecting] the farmers, as we know, at that period—he, his heart was populist. He was elected in a field of 11 candidates for Congress by saying, I’m the only one of the 11 who will be 100 percent for Franklin Roosevelt. So he was a New Dealer, a populist at heart. Of course, as he rose in power, representative of the Senate—which … of a state that’s very conservative, as opposed to his populist district in central Texas—he became friendlier with the interests of oil, the interests of construction, the predecessor to Halliburton, Brown & Root. But at heart remained with … you know, with the folks he had taught when he was a schoolteacher for one year in a town, at a high school of Mexican students in Cotulla, Texas. I think he’d be astonished and saddened by the fact that the difference today between the top and the bottom in America is greater—in income and wealth—is greater than it’s been since the Depression. I think he’d be—I think he’d be indignant about that.

Peter Scheer: Do you see a parallel there with Barack Obama, who started also as a populist working in communities with working people, who now seems to be more interested in corporate power, influence?

Bill Moyers: Well, I’ve seen this with most Democrats since Johnson’s time, who have bought into the system as it is…and I think that’s Barack Obama’s greatest problem, is that he’s bought into America as it is, and therefore he can’t lead us out of the crisis the way most people thought he could. Yes, he’s a good servant of corporate interest, despite some of his rhetoric. He accepts the system now as it is. He’ll take secret money next year if he has to; he refused to participate in public funding for the election in ’08. And he understands where the deck is stacked, and where the money comes from. No question about it.

Robert Scheer: So where did we liberals go wrong? You know, it’s sort of an irony. You mentioned conservative Texas, but you know, I kind of like the fact that Ron Paul from Texas is at least … [Laughter] raising some questions, you know. And what happened to the sort of liberal outrage, and liberal populism …?

Bill Moyers: I think we thought that we could negotiate, and civilize the corporate power. … We thought that they would respond responsibly to the pleas for equality, justice, or at least fairness. We thought we could … you know, and then Johnson’s great quote from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible: “Come now, and let us reason together.” And I think liberals thought that you could regulate these predatory powers so that they would foam less at the mouth, consume less at the meal, and sleep a little easier at night. But they’re restless; you know, money is restless for more. And we have discovered, too late, that they refuse to be reasoned with.

Robert Scheer: Not just reasoned with, but they don’t seem to have any sense of being accountable to future generations. At least with the old moneyed elite, the Rockefellers and so forth, there was some sense of leaving something, of worrying about how you’d be perceived 50 or 100 years up the road. This new crowd just seems to be, you know, get in and get out, and grab what you can.

Bill Moyers: It’s more “now,” and therefore there is no governance; there is no balance wheel. I’ve been doing deep research, forensic research, into the period between 1860 and 1912, the period that followed the Civil War, saw the populist movement in an effort to tame the growing powers of great wealth—the railroads, the trusts, the monopolies. And we’re seeing the same thing now that we saw then, only more so. There was a period of time when the populace and the progressives—William Jennings Bryan…people like that, frontier champions of the people—thought that they could regulate these powerful economic interests, and discovered that they couldn’t. Liberals came along after the New Deal, thought we could regulate capitalism, and it turned out capitalism was regulating … capitalism captured the regulatory state. I think we have to go back to what Jim Hightower, the great populist from Texas, present populist from Texas, says about the populists: that they didn’t want to criticize the government, they wanted to own the government. And I think that’s exactly what’s—I mean, democracy is in trouble. We’re almost out of time. It’s always a series of narrow escapes, representative government, and we just—we may be running out of luck right now.

Peter Scheer: Do you think we have a bias of the present? I mean, you’re talking about this broad swath of history, and you were in the White House during the civil rights movement, the great achievements of that era. And now we live in a situation where, you know, we often say well, things have been much worse; and yet at the same time we have more people in prison now in the United States than any other country in the world, and many of them people of color. Are we better off, are we worse off? And do you think we’re in—we’re always moving from crisis to crisis, whether it’s nuclear weapons or global warming, or—are things really moving in the wrong direction, the right direction, are we somewhere in between?

Bill Moyers: Well, in some respect, there are great advances. I mean, with gay people and women and African-Americans. Even in this regard: Look at what’s happened here in New York with the alleged, with the arrest of the head of the IMF, a rich powerful white man who allegedly tried to take advantage of a poor working immigrant from Africa who was coming in to clean his room. If there’s ever a metaphor for how the rich and upper class regard their servants, you’ve got it right there. But now, she can file a suit, has filed a suit; and he’s been arrested, he’s being held. Once upon a time, where I grew up in the South—once upon a time anywhere in this country—a servant, household help would, if they made a charge against a rich powerful white man like this, it would, nothing would happen. So in that metaphorical sense, and in a real sense, there have been some changes. But in terms of the distribution of wealth, in terms of equality of opportunity, in terms of a decent wage, living wage, in many respects we are losing ground rapidly. I just saw a piece about some new jobs being created out in the Midwest with the return of some manufacturing functions, but they’re jobs paying a third of what the old jobs that were shipped abroad are paying. So, you know, I think comparisons are somewhat misplaced. Going back to Robert’s original point, from the very beginning this has been a tempestuous journey. As I say in the opening of the foreword to my new book, when de Tocqueville got off of the boat coming for his celebrated visit in New York in the 1830s, he was greeted by what he called a “mighty tumult.” And that’s what democracy is. But there have been periods in our history when organized people—that is, operating through their government—have been able to check and balance the power of organized money. At the moment, organized money is winning. And with serious consequences for working men and women and for the poor.

Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio and we’re speaking with Bill Moyers.

Robert Scheer: Let me ask you a question—you know, you came from the South and I came from the Bronx [Laughs], and we had the conceit that we needed national politics to straighten you people out, you know; civil rights, and so forth. And I increasingly feel that this preoccupation with the federal government has been a mistake, that maybe there’s something to states’ rights. We’re broadcasting from California, where actually we ran against the national trend in our election; where there seems to have been a rejection of kind of the tea party populism; there’s a recognition that government is needed. And increasingly, I wonder whether the federal government is really the indispensable agent of liberal change.

Bill Moyers: It certainly isn’t right now; it could be, and its tax policies and … look, what’s the one thing the federal government has done well in the last 15 years? Get bin Laden. But it took 10 years, $2 trillion, two wars, and a lot of lives before we did. That’s about the only thing you can claim that the federal government has got right in the last 12 or 15 years. It has fallen into a relationship with corporate money that has rendered it largely inoperative when it comes to the real lives of ordinary people. But you know, Robert, there was no states’ rights before the Civil War; there were no states before the Civil War, as such. It was only when Lincoln organized the federal government to defend the Union that we got a federal government that was actually doing things for people, like … homeland, railroads, all of that. The federal government’s not working right now. And out of 2008 came an actually interesting contradiction of forces. A lot of people emerged from that saying, the market has failed us; and then with the bailouts and all of that, a lot of other people emerged and said, we ought to go back to the traditional state. So if you don’t want the markets to govern your lives, and you don’t believe that the traditional state can, you’ve got to go local. And to me, that is where there is hope right now for some change. I mean, you’ve got some conservative change; look at South Carolina, look at Mississippi, look at places like that; you’re going to get some progressive change elsewhere.

Robert Scheer: You know, it’s a point of focus, I think. Because I covered—I was working for the Los Angeles Times as a reporter—and I covered the deregulation under Bill Clinton. And it just was so obvious to me that there was no consumer presence, no popular voice; that the banks were going to rewrite these laws and reverse the New Deal, in just the way they wanted, and get what they wanted. And so—and in the process, we took away the power from the states to regulate usury, to protect consumers, to govern the banks. There had been, I think, 23 states that had, in their constitution, restrictions on interest rates and, you know, serious rules about the banks. And I wonder whether as a sort of liberal standard now we should be saying, hey, the federal government—we can agree with the right wing, some of the principal libertarians—the federal government is out of control. We really can’t control it; the powerful interests do. And that’s the sense in which I bring up states’ rights; that maybe the battlefield is to—as some of these state attorney generals, now the attorney general of New York, who is going after Wall Street—maybe these are the people who … this is the battlefield.

Bill Moyers: Well, many of the states’ attorneys general are one hope. They—27, 30 of them have organized on various issues to protect the consumer, consumer rights. It all depends on what—anywhere you have representative government, the powers-that-be are going to try to take over, buy out, buy off that government. If you go to Texas, my home state, of course it’s the business interests that run the state of Texas now, with [Rick] Perry, who was George Bush’s successor. You really can’t get anything done if you’re a consumer advocate, an advocate of the poor in Texas, because it’s run by the landed and vested interests in that state. So without a populist, progressive citizens’ muscle of some form or another, if you go to only the states’ rights, you’re going to get a lot of oppressive reaction in the government.

Peter Scheer: You’ve been an ardent defender of the press, or of good press, for many, many years. And making that connection with the decline of our—of how desperate our situation is with respect to our democracy, we’re in the middle of a fund drive here at KPFK, and I wonder … you know, I find that as an editor at Truthdig, whenever we post stories about the decline of the media, it’s like—people just don’t care. They never click on them, they sort of ignore them. And there’s a small sort of intellectual group that has active discussions about it, but by and large, it’s just frustrating to … I guess I’m asking, can you make the case for people, why they should care about the decline of media, and make that connection with our situation.

Bill Moyers: Well, I think it’s one of the oldest arguments in our democracy. That, you know, for all of his flaws, I think Thomas Jefferson was right when he said that an informed public is to be preferred to an uninformed public. And I think that is generally the case now. There’s an interesting study out from the University of Michigan about how people don’t want to listen to the facts. Even if they know a fact is authentic, if they know it’s true, but if it offends their—or insults or undermines their belief system, they don’t want to, they don’t accept it; they reject it. That’s one reason, the explanation for the solid support the right-wing and conservative media have. Unless there’s an alternative to Fox News, to Rush Limbaugh—unless there are guys like you, Thom Hartmann and Amy Goodman out there, continuing to press the evidence to the contrary, continuing to do forensic journalism, deeply researched journalism—really we’re going to live in that smog of propaganda, sentimentality and frankly, pornography, which has—political pornography has transformed our discourse into an ugly and grotesque version of what should be a good conversation of democracy. So the artists may be small, the artists may be underfunded; without these alternative voices, we are left to the mercy of the state and to the big, powerful corporations that control much of the media now. I mean, if you’re listening to this broadcast or going to Truthdig, imagine what happens if this channel goes silent and Truthdig disappears. What is your life like? Where do you go to compare what you’re hearing here, and reading on Truthdig, to what you’re getting from talk radio—85% of whose hosts are right wing—or from Fox News, where large numbers of people get their news? So without these independent voices, without the Tom Paines, without the William Allen Whites, without the Iconoclast—which was an independent newspaper in Texas many years ago—without these, we’re beholden to the propagandists.

Robert Scheer: You know, I’d like to—this is Bob Scheer—I’d like to end on a more positive note [Laughs] than my son Peter seemed to be going. You know, we’ve been doing this a long time; you’ve been doing it a lot more effectively than I have. But still, you know, it’s great—it’s great to rebel; it’s great to challenge. It’s great to seek the truth. And as I look around, I think we have—there’s one saving grace to this society, which has sort of manifested in the Internet. You know, yeah, there’s a lot of noise; there are special interests. But the basic values of the country remain surprisingly noble. And I think people really want to do the right thing at the end of the day. And I think that’s why we keep doing what we’re doing. We do find an audience. You have found an incredible audience. You, through public radio and everything else you’ve done, you’ve been able to reach tens of millions of Americans. And we see it now with someone like Chris Hedges that we publish on Truthdig, who brings up sort of a prophetic voice—there is an audience, and it does cut through the clutter. So do you have a …

Bill Moyers: Well, I have to say that—you’re kind in those remarks, but I have to say that people like me depend on people like you. I’m serious, Bob. Your columns cut through the fog, as I call it; they are courageous; they’re bold; they’re grounded in evidence. And I live off of them, and so do a lot of other people I know. When you recently published that—after the killing of bin Laden, you published that quick piece by Chris Hedges, it went viral. I know; I was getting it sent, hundreds of people were sending it to me. I’m just supporting what you say by saying it’s not one, it’s not two; it’s all of us trying to create a domino effect of alternative journalism. And I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. People used to say, why don’t you go into politics; and I’d say, are you kidding? The life of the journalist, for all of its frustrations, is a deeply rewarding one. And I think if we can figure out how to make a living at it, what you’re doing is the future for the next generation coming along. Young journalists come to me and say, what should I do? Should I go into television, should I go into newspapers? Television seems so trivial; newspapers seem so endangered. And I say, look, if you’ve got a fire in your belly, you’ll find a place; you’ll find a venue. And go to the Internet and look at the places like Truthdig and Amy Goodman and Josh Marshall, at There are a lot of places where you can still signify as a journalist today, and we need every one of them and more.

Peter Scheer: What a great note to end on. Bill Moyers, thanks so much for making time for us.

Robert Scheer: Thank you.

Bill Moyers: My pleasure. Thanks to both of you.

Peter Scheer: Take care.

Bill Moyers: Goodbye.

Peter Scheer: “Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues” is his latest book. That was Bill Moyers, the legend.
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Peter Scheer:… That’s it for this week’s episode of Truthdig Radio. Thanks for listening.

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