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||Peter Halley spoke with the twenty-seven-year-old author near his home in Brooklyn's Park Slope.
PETER: In March you organized a reading for the political action committee, Downtown for Democracy. Among the writers who participated were Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jhumpa Lahiri. The event raised money to help progressive candidates around the country. You're going to host a similar reading in Los Angeles in October. Have you always been politically active?
JONATHAN: I always had very strong opinions, and I liked talking about them, but I never acted on them. The shift happened about a year ago. The primaries were coming up. People were getting in gear. It no longer felt acceptable to just feel things and not act. I can't imagine anything that will affect the way people live more dramatically than the outcome of the upcoming election.
PETER: It's a time-honored tradition for writers
and other creative people to step forward during times of political crisis. Why is it important for writers to take an activist role and to make their views known?
JONATHAN: I think there may be two ways
to address that question, the first being, what I think my role is as opposed to other writers' roles, and secondly, what unique responsibilities I might have as a writer.
I understand that there are writers who don't want to mix their politics with their art, just as I suppose I understand that there
are people who choose to eat meat in the world. But there are ways I choose to carry myself, ways I choose to live, because the alternative wouldn't feel right to me. And, in the case of politics, there are too many things that are too wrong to not try
to correct them.
PETER: Is there a unique role a writer plays in stepping forward in the political debate?
JONATHAN: The writer brings a built-in audience. Some of the people who have read my book are going to listen to what I say. They might agree, or they might disagree, but
they constitute an audience, as evidenced by the crowd we got at the reading for Downtown for Democracy.
PETER: As result of being a writer, you have a
JONATHAN: We are able to bring people in. The other thing is that writers are in the business of communication, and, hopefully,
we communicate how different and how similar people are. And that is exactly what is political right now, given that this administration has encouraged us to underestimate both how similar and different we are from one another. So, given that I'm in the
business of words, and in the business of expressing those similarities and differences, I think I would feel like I weren't even doing my job as a writer if I weren't talking about what's going on now.
PETER: Were you a Howard Dean supporter during the primaries?
JONATHAN: No, I never was. I didn't think Dean would make as good a president as Kerry would, even though my ideals are probably closer to Dean's. As we can see from our current President, it's a position that requires a lot of humility, and Dean lacked that. But if he had been the nominee I would have been behind him one hundred percent.
PETER: The Democratic Party has absolutely lit up during this election season.
JONATHAN: The real difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Democrats are more questioning. As one should be. We are concerned about what's going on in this world. And unfortunately a lot of the Republicans' concerns have to do with the next world. Their question is, "Am I going
to go to heaven or hell?" I think it's an inherently good thing to question. And I think that to question is to be liberal. But it does make it harder to organize and settle on something. I experience that with my friends every day. You know, "Should we do this, or should we do that?" "Well, it's a long walk there, but on the other hand it's sort of cheaper here." [laughs]
PETER: So you strongly identify yourself with the Democratic Party.
JONATHAN: Absolutely. There's nothing else one could be right now.
PETER: The Democrats also have to contend with the Republicans' cynical use of language. When they want to cut down forests, they frame it as the Healthy Forests Act. That frame is repeated until people don't believe that they're cutting down forests. It's almost Orwellian.
JONATHAN: That's not framing things, it's just lying. I think there's an alternative. Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention was extremely clear, and it had nothing to do with casting issues in a
misleading light. He said, "Look, there are alternatives, there are two ways of seeing things. It doesn't mean that one is for
people who love their country more, they are just different ideas. Here are our ideas, here are their ideas, choose between them." And when the issues are stated clearly and held up against each other like that, there's only one choice. The Democrats have to be more straightforward, not misleading.
PETER: Do you think the election problems in Florida in 2000 have also contributed to the activism we see today?
JONATHAN: Personally, I didn't appreciate what was going on four years ago. I was
upset by the recounts in Florida, but I wasn't hysterical. If I could go back I would storm the White House! It was the opposite of democracy because people were disenfranchised. People who wanted to vote weren't able to, either because their right to vote was literally taken away, or because the ballots were too confusing. And because of that, a state that should have gone to Gore went to Bush. And because of that, an election that should have gone to Gore went to Bush. And because of that, we find ourselves where we are now, in a vastly worse position than we were at the end of eight years of Clinton and Gore. And it's not only because of September 11th.
PETER: There are many people who are too disillusioned to care.
JONATHAN: I know so many loudmouth liberals who don't do anything. They don't give any money. All they do is complain about how bad things are, as if the news were made by other people, as if politics was something practiced by other people. The Republicans are so skilled at activating an enormous base ÷ Christian fundamentalists in partic-ular ÷ who now believe that politics is what they do.
PETER: What would be your biggest concern if Bush were re-elected?
JONATHAN: A friend of mine, who's English, said to me that in this election America is going to show the world whether one person, one administration, has hijacked the country and taken us to all sorts of places we
didn't really want to go, or whether this
is what we choose, whether this is what we want. I think much of the world doesn't know whether we feel represented or misrepresented, because we're giving out such mixed
signals. It would be really horrible to send the message to the world that this is something we're proud of, this is what we choose.
PETER: What other kinds of political initiatives have you seen in your peer group?
JONATHAN: A lot of young people are applying their professional skills to politics. One friend who works in public relations has been helping with Concerts for Kerry. Another friend who's a director is making a short film for his TV campaign. When I wanted to get more active politically, I made the mistake of trying to write Op-Eds. I couldn't do it. I realized my usefulness lay in writing fiction and my life as part of the literary community. The Downtown for Democracy readings give me a chance to channel what I do toward this end.
PETER: Are you disappointed that we have seen so few big-time media stars speak out?
JONATHAN: Anybody who is in the public
eye has the ability to do good. If all the Jerry Seinfelds, Justin Timberlakes, and Shaqs of the world were to speak out, it would make a huge difference. But I'm not going to lose a big part of my audience by saying Bush is an asshole. Statistically, the vast majority of books are bought in cities like New York, San Francisco, and LA. Those places tend to be liberal. But someone with the mass appeal of Tom Hanks might lose half his audience. People would boycott his movies. Does that excuse him? No. It makes it more understandable, but it also highlights the influence he could have. What if he could persuade a quarter of his audience? Power should be wielded for something other than money.
PETER: As a writer, what are your thoughts on Michael Moore's technique in Fahrenheit 9/11?
JONATHAN: It is very persuasive. It works in part because he's so clearly in the right. But it's also manipulative. If the Republicans used his tactics I would find it very problematic. And I think a lot of people who have been praising the movie would as well. Ultimately, I'm glad he did it, but it's not how I would want to make something.
PETER: Are you hopeful about the election?
JONATHAN: With reservations. I think we'll beat Bush. But I don't know what that will be like. It's certainly not going to be
perfect, it will just be a lot less bad.
But I don't think anything can be taken for granted. I took for granted that Gore was going to win.