In mid-June Tim Robbins spoke at the annual dinner of the Liberty Hill Foundation, which funds grassroots organizing in Los Angeles. In recognition of his politically engaged films and his activist commitments, the foundation gave him its Upton Sinclair Award. Following is an edited version of his remarks.
About a month ago in a New York theater, I was approached by an agitated older couple. “We hope you’re happy now,” they said. “With what?” I said, suspecting the answer they gave. “Your Nader gave us Bush.” Now, this wasn’t the first time since the election that I had been attacked by irate liberals who saw my support of Ralph Nader as a betrayal, as blasphemy, as something tantamount to pissing on the Constitution. Before the election Susan [Sarandon] and I had been attacked in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times; we’d received intimidating faxes from a leading feminist admonishing us for our support for Nader. A week before the election we’d gotten a phone call from a Hollywood power broker, who urged us to call Nader and ask him to withdraw from the race. If he did so, this mogul said, he would contribute $100,000 to the Green Party. I told him that no phone call from us would sway this man, that this was not a politics of personal influence and deal-making, and that the Green Party probably wouldn’t take his contribution. After the election I read an article in which a famous actor criticized supporters of Nader, calling them limousine liberals of the worst kind, unconcerned with the poor.
It was not easy to support Nader. In no uncertain terms the message sent to us by colleagues and business associates was that our support of Nader would cost us. Will it? I don’t know. After the election one of our kids was admonished in public by the aforementioned Hollywood mogul. And who knows what fabulous parties we haven’t been invited to.
So, what to make of all this? As someone who has voted defensively in the past and at one time recognized all Republicans as evil incarnate, I completely understand the reactions of these people. I like these people. Eight years ago I would have said the same thing to me. But a lot has happened that has shifted the way I think. After talking with friends in Seattle after protests there, after going with Susan to Washington, DC, and talking with activists at the IMF-World Bank protests, after talking with 13-year-olds handing out pamphlets on sweatshops outside a Gap on Fifth Avenue, after watching the steady drift to the right of the Democratic Party under Clinton, I have come to the realization that I would rather vote my conscience than vote strategically.
There is something truly significant happening today. A new movement is slowly taking hold on college campuses, among left-wing groups in Europe and human rights groups throughout the world. The protests in Seattle in 1999, the IMF-World Bank protests in Washington, DC, in 2000, and the continuing presence of agitation wherever corporate entities gather to determine global economic and environmental policies do not, as the media portray them, merely reflect the work of fringe radicals and anarchists. Such events arise out of a broad-based coalition of students, environmentalists, unions, farmers, scientists and other concerned citizens who view the decisions made in these cabals as the frontline in the battle for the future of this planet. This is a movement in its infancy that I believe is as morally compelling as the early abolitionists fighting to end slavery in the eighteenth century; as important as the labor activists advocating workplace safety and an end to child labor in the early 1850s; as undeniable as the scientists who first alerted the American public to widespread abuse of our environment by corporate polluters. All of these movements met with overwhelming condemnation by both political parties, were ignored and then criticized by the press, while their adherents were harassed, arrested and sometimes killed by police and other agencies of the government. But because of their tenacity, we were eventually able in this country to create laws that ended slavery and established a minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment insurance, environmental responsibility and workplace safety.
Despite years of progress in our own country on all these issues, we now face a resurgence of child and slave labor, of unsafe working conditions, of sweatshops and of wanton environmental destruction in the Third World wrought by the very same corporate ethos that resisted for years the progressive gains in the United States. In the interest of profit margins and economic growth, our corporations have reached out to the global economy and found a way to return to 1850 on all of these issues. Enabled and emboldened by free trade and the protections granted by NAFTA, GATT and the WTO, we have farmed these problems out to other countries. Amid our booming economy this is an uncomfortable concept to embrace. It certainly is not being written about in our official journals. But it is being shouted on the streets, and the protesters’ arguments bear an incontrovertible moral weight. Ralph Nader was the only candidate to talk about these issues and to embrace this new movement as his own. That is why Susan and I voted for him.
Last year’s election brought us to an important crossroads. The closeness of the race lifted a rock to expose the corrupt, manipulative and illegal way in which elections are run in this country. Indeed, the election year’s most surreal and humorous moment was when Fidel Castro offered to send observers to monitor our election. Aside from the obvious voter fraud in Florida, a brief spotlight was focused on the racist practices that have accompanied elections for years. Whether it’s the roadblocks outside polling places in African-American voting districts or the disappearance of African-American names from voting registers, the ineffective and antiquated voting machines in low-income voting districts or the exposure of the Supreme Court as a partisan political institution, the picture is the same. Powerful people in the American ruling class fear democracy.
There was a time when I would have said that it is the “evil” Republicans who fear democracy. But the sad realization I have come to after the 2000 election, and after experiencing the reactions to our support for Nader, is that you can count the Democrats in that bunch, too. Not only do they fear democracy but many in the Democratic Party elite fear, if not outright despise, idealism. I have lost a great deal of respect for a party that admonished its progressive wing, that had no tolerance for dissension in its ranks and sought to demonize the most important and influential consumer advocate of the past fifty years. But we shouldn’t be surprised. A similar reaction occurred earlier in this century when another leading advocate, Upton Sinclair, was running for governor of California. The power brokers of the Democratic Party did everything they could to isolate him. If they gave any support at all to his candidacy, it was halfhearted, while some even endorsed his Republican opponent, Frank Merriam. And the press? They demonized him, said he was anti-business, said he was an egomaniac. Sound familiar?
Most of the Nader supporters I met were the real deal, people who have dedicated their lives to advocacy. These were the people at the center of the struggle around controversial, difficult issues; their political engagement was way beyond and deserving of much more respect than that of many people who would wind up criticizing them.
The judgmental and patronizing attitude of those in the generation that fought to end the Vietnam War and work for women’s rights is disappointing and discouraging, but understandable. But I am not of the opinion that Bill Clinton was the best this generation had to offer, and I would like to believe there is a dormant power still left in these progressives who have yet to acknowledge the importance of the new movement growing around them. I would like to believe that the children of the Vietnam era who protested that unjust war were concerned with more than self-preservation, with issues beyond not losing their lives to the war. I would like to believe that feminists–recognizing which gender works predominantly in sweatshops and which gender is predominantly sold into slavery–would acknowledge these issues as their own, and begin looking beyond reproductive rights as the only litmus test for a candidate. I would like to believe that higher ideals drive all of us, ideals that have to do with the world at large.
The young people who have helped launch a quest for an alternative party, one that will not compromise this planet’s future for campaign donations from corporate sugar daddies, believe the Democratic and Republican parties are united on the major issues of our time. This new movement is a rejection of politics as usual, a rejection that has frightening implications when you consider the progressive community’s reaction to it. Have we become our parents? Are we the Establishment? Are we now the status quo that so cynically rejects those with ideals and dreams, that says to the idealist that there is no room for that in this election, that one must vote strategically, that we can’t afford our dreams, that we must accept the lesser of two evils? The couple in the theater, the Op-Ed columnist, the Hollywood mogul and the actor beat their drums once every four years for their candidate and talk about their opponents as if their election will end civilization as we know it. This is a gay Op-Ed columnist who would not vote for the one candidate who unashamedly supported same-sex marriage; this is a mogul who would not be having any more sleepovers and private screenings in a Republican White House; this is an actor professing to care about the poor who couldn’t seem to find his way to the picket line to support his own union’s strike.
I don’t respect armchair activists. I respect the kids outside The Gap who don’t compromise. I’m not ready to cede their idealism and passion and vision, to compromise their integrity for a Democratic Party that aspires to be centrist, for a Democratic Party that supports the death penalty, that dismantled the welfare system while increasing corporate welfare, that helped create the economic system that tears at the heart of the labor movement.
How embarrassing it must be for Democratic senators that the embodiment of political courage in this country is now a Republican from Vermont. Maybe it’s time to stop demonizing people for their political affiliations and to follow the example of the man who risked his political future to follow the voice inside him. To reject politics as usual and follow our grassroots hearts; to form alliances in unlikely places.
It’s a long struggle for justice. It is grassroots movements that create real change, and no grassroots movement ever got anywhere compromising its ideals. Real change won’t happen at Washington cocktail parties or in the Lincoln Bedroom. It is arduous and messy, and takes relentless agitation. It took over a hundred years of advocacy to eliminate slavery, over a hundred years to put an end to child labor and over a hundred years to establish the minimum wage. This movement is in its infancy, but it is alive and it’s not going away. Its door is wide open to you. It’s a frightening threshold to cross but an essential one.