BUZZINE INTERVIEW with Jeanmarie Simpson

June 10, 2009

Jeanmarie Simpson: This is an absolute honor and privilege. I was in the studio when you did the voiceovers for A Single Woman. I wept the whole time. Here was this beautiful, iconic voice reading pieces I had discovered during the historical archaeology of Jeannette Rankin’s life — there you were reading the heartbreaking, mostly obscure story of Frank Little, and I loved that, when the director started telling you about Frank Little, you interrupted and said, “Yes, I know the story.”

Peter Coyote: Well, that’s sort of my territory.

JS: That’s very exciting to me as a protest scholar, peace activist and an actor and theater artist. There are a lot of us out there, but you’re one that is in the limelight. You speak for all of us and illuminate our concerns with such diligent grace. It’s enormously validating to all of us.

PC: Thanks a lot. I think you’re an engaged person first, and whatever kind of celebrity or grand celebrity you have is after the fact.

JS: Sleeping Where I Fall is your biography.

PC: Yeah, it’s a memoir about the ‘60s.

JS: It’s been out there ten years now, right?

PC: Yeah, it’s been selling. It’s sold quite well. It’s been reprinted and is coming out this month. It’s been continuously in print for ten years. Counterpoint Press is doing a new edition of it with a 25-page afterword and a bunch of new photos, and it’s being used as a source text at a bunch of schools, including Harvard for ‘60s studies classes. It was on three best-seller lists when it first came out, and it’s never gone out of print.

JS: I first knew of you because I lived in Toronto and came of age during the alternative theater movement and went to drama school during that time, so of course I knew about you, the Mime Troupe, the work you were doing in San Francisco…all this wonderful, alternative, counterculture stuff. So when you showed up in ET, I was so excited, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Not just I but my young theater comrades at the time all wondered how you made your way into that mainstream format, coming from your radical background and how you reconciled being a part of that commercial juggernaut with your hippie values…

PC: When my 15-year communal hiatus ended, I had a daughter and no money. I had worked with Governor Jerry Brown for eight years (and no money), re-thinking California Arts Politics and making a great success of the California Arts Council. I’m given a lot of credit for the strategies and policies that raised the budget from $1-16 million dollars, even as Prop. 13 was passing and all other State Agencies were taking a 10% cut. That success gave me confidence to try to extend myself and, as an actor, I always had a curiousity about the movies. I became an actor because I needed to make a living. I figured I was only exploiting myself, and being 40, I had schooling for my daughter (and soon a son) to think of, and some future retirement. I never entered into it as an artist, so I put a lot of my aesthetic scruples aside. I never did anything that violated my sense of ethics, but neither was I going to say to my kids, “I’m not going to do a Walt Disney movie — you’ll have to drop out of school.” Finally, I think the dissolving of the counter-culture created an interesting situation where we’re all in the one culture, invisibly melded. Wherever we contact it is an opportunity to press for change. I do that as vigorously today as I ever did and, hopefully, with more skill.

JS: I’m very excited about Sleeping Where I Fall coming out with such a generous new afterword. You must have so much new insight looking back on the decade since it was originally published.

PC: It’s interesting, looking back 10 years on a book that’s looking back 30. It’s impossible not to rethink things. Also, there were consequences from the book itself — people who felt they weren’t done right by it, errors…things like that which needed to be acknowledged and corrected.

JS: What’s your next acting project?

PC: I’m hardly acting. The movie industry is at a stand-still. But, to be honest, I can barely force myself to go to LA and audition for 12-year-olds who haven’t even had the decency to Google me or go to IMDB and research my work. I’ve done 130 films. I didn’t audition for Stephen Spielberg, Pedro Almodovar, Roman Polanski, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, and I’m supposed to pull out my bag of tricks for a kid who just started shaving? I don’t mind going down and meeting with anyone. There’s so much plastic surgery around, they have to check me out and see what I actually look like. I understand that, but I feel that I’ve established a solid body of work, and I’ll stand or fall on it. So, to allow somebody like that to sit in judgment over what I’m going to do when I’ve gotten the script two days earlier and I’m supposed to come down and give it my best shot, I just don’t want to do it. Neither do I want to do Revenge of the Zombies 2, 3 and 11.

JS: Are things slow because of the strike?

PC: The strike, the economy… It’s kind of like the equivalent of free market capitalism. The stars get 20 million and then the character actors…there are about 20 or 30 who could arguably play the same role I do, if not more, and they line them up and they offer them a third of what their rate used to be, and the one that’s the hungriest takes it.

JS: How are you dealing with that? What are you doing? How are you engaging yourself?

PC: I’m building a new career, and as soon as I can get out of acting, I’m going to stop. I’ve been putting an outrigger on my career. I went to Syria and Lebanon in November to research the American invasion of Syria and sold that story to Esquire. I’m writing it up. I went to Cuba in December and I wrote that up for The San Francisco Chronicle. I’m working on three television pilots.

JS: That’s really interesting to me. I’m always a little shocked when I see you on a mainstream television show. I think I saw you on some crime drama recently. Is that ever difficult for you — to be a part of that corporate world that is the antithesis of the sustainable world you espouse?

PC: It’s much more difficult to stay interested. The corporate world is the background of the entire culture. The idea that “you’re not a part of it” is a mental pet that may make you feel better, but it won’t stand up to five minutes of examination. I reconciled myself years ago to working for wages. My picture is not on the money. Money is a way of inventing scarcity, and there are great historical forces backing that up. I go to work and take care of my family with what I earn. It’s simple. But just like a Red-tailed hawk sitting by the road and feeding off dead mice may not be “pure,” it’s still a Red-tailed hawk, still feeding its children.

JS: Is there any way out of the consumerist snowball in which we seem to be stuck? With defense contractors in 433 out of 435 congressional districts and half of our tax dollars going to military allocations, is there any hope that there can be a meaningful shift? Can we hope to see a real cultural revolution in our lifetimes?

PC: Everything stands on the shoulders of something else, so the corporate sector has pretty effectively bought the Congress. Once they finally got Bill Clinton in there and the Clinton Democratic Party shifted their allegiance from the traditional Democratic sector of labor, minorities, etc. to the corporate sector, it was all over and will remain so as long as we continue to have privately funded elections. So this situation sits on the back of the corporate sector’s owning the electoral process. The Congress people only need our vote, which is basically not much more than a hall pass, but they need the money every day to give them permission to operate in the halls of power and distribute the public wealth. The people with that money are the corporate sector and the top 15% of the population, but the corporate sector gave more than half in the last election, even in Obama’s election, which had an unprecedentedly wide democratic spread. The corporate sector still beats everybody else up. So until we have full federal funding of elections, nothing that you and I care about is going to be on the public policy agenda in a meaningful way.

They’re discussing credit card reforms and they’re still talking about 28% interest. Twenty-eight percent interest! If you divide the interest rate into 72, it tells you how long it’ll take for your money to double. So 9% interest, your money will double in eight years. At 14%, what is it? Five, less? At 28%, it’s less than three. So I don’t even like to talk about it. It’s a waste of time. Until we have federal election standards that are the same from state to state, until we have hand-written ballots, until we have standardized non-electric counting, and until we have full federal funding of elections, the electoral process and democracy belongs to other people. It does not belong to the citizens, and none of “the people’s” issues or business is going to get done. It’s going to suck hind tit to business.

JS: This brings me to what you are doing with Link TV which, to me, is a fantastic use of your talent and resources — to take that and open up to so many people, so many voices that would never be heard, giving them that platform. It’s wonderful, but you’ve got a very small audience, right?

PC: No, actually. Link TV is in one in five homes in the United States. It’s as big at its age as CNN was. But I’m not doing anything on Link TV this year because they’ve had budget cuts and they didn’t have the wherewithal to do new programming. Not that I get paid, but it still requires staff and things like that. This is partly what my book is about. My book is called Toxic Taboos: Things We’re Afraid to Know and Why They’re Killing Us.

JS: Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

PC: Like, we’re either afraid to know or unable to see that democracy has been completely co-opted by the corporate sector. Until we see that, we can’t really think about how to correct the situation or discuss it intelligently. I’m afraid for my children and grandchild. I’m afraid for this lovely, star-lit planet and its myriad miracles and creatures. As a rule, these perspectives are framed out of public debate. For instance, I have a chapter called “We Hate Our Children.” Everybody is always talking about “doing it for the children, doing it for the children…” but it’s bullshit. If you look at the way we’re maleducating children, if you look at the crap we’re putting in their soil, the air, the water, and if you look at the food we’re serving them, and if you look at the problems we’re leaving them, the debt we’re leaving them, you’d have to conclude that we’re behaving as if we hate our children.

This is not the way you behave toward people you love. You make sacrifices. You don’t buy the third snowmobile or the private plane or the second house, or whatever it is. You put savings aside. You sacrifice for your children. That’s what my parents did and their parents did for them. People think that because they’re taking care of their own child, they’re doing all right. But if you hurt other children to care for your own, you’re creating a situation that will eventually kill your own as well. So the book examines a whole series of issues, like nuclear power, money, lying, politics – just to proffer that if you don’t re-frame these discussions, there is no possible way of solving any of these problems. We’re still operating as if the government operates the way we were taught in social studies. It doesn’t. We’ve all been put in the position of people frolicking on the deck of the Titanic.

JS: Are they even teaching social studies anymore?

PC: I doubt it.

JS: I saw Sandra Day O’Connor talking about civics, how she’s trying to get civics back into this curriculum because it’s all but gone now.

PC: Yeah, let me just see if I can find these quotes because these are interesting. I did a lot of research for this book.

JS: When is the book coming out?

PC: I don’t know. I’m only halfway done with it. I have to do, like, one day a week on each project or nothing gets done. Here’s a good one: “Thirty-seven percent of American adults cannot figure a 10% discount on a price, even using a calculator. The same percentage can’t read a bus schedule or write a letter about a credit card error. Fourteen percent can’t total a deposit slip, locate an intersection on a map, understand an appliance warranty, or determine the correct dosage of a medicine.” Therefore, none of those people can compete on the global playing field. It’s just unbelievable. Here you go. This was from a series of national surveys. This first one was from The National Constitutional Center: “Only 41% of Americans can name the three branches of government. Only 2% can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Twenty-six percent could not identify the vice president from his photo.” This is from The National Assessment of Education: “Fifty percent of 17-year-olds could not express 9/100ths as a percent. Fifty percent could not place The Civil War in the right half-century. Only 4% could read a bus schedule, and only 12% could arrange six common fractions in order of size.” Here’s another one: “In 1998, The Massachusetts Board of Education gave literacy tests for teachers pegged at the level of an exam for high school equivalency.” This is Massachusetts — it’s not Mississippi, it’s not Georgia, it’s not Louisiana. “Of the 1,800 teachers who took the test, 59% failed. As a result, the Commissioner of Education announced that requirements for a passing grade would be lower.” So this is the peer group that is going to inherit the 21st century. These are the people that are going to have to try to compete with European kids who are going to school 80 days longer than our kids — with Chinese kids, with hungry kids from all over Asia who work hard and study, while our kids are complaining that those Asian kids run the curve up in the classroom. So we’re not treating our kids like we love them or care seriously about their futures. But here’s the frame: If you assume that school is to educate kids and is just doing a bad job at it, you can’t possibly solve the problem. If you understand that school, as it’s currently conceived for most of the Nation’s kids, is to baby-sit, keep kids off the street, keep them out of the labor market, and to create an industry for the middle class — the teachers, the janitors, the construction industry, the supervisors, the social services industry whose livings depend on them, then it starts to make sense. Then you can begin to see how we actually came to such a pass.

JS: Isn’t it also to get them into the work culture, the corporate consumerist model, the whole thing? Isn’t it partly that?

PC: Yes, I think it is. It’s also to train them as “employees” — to follow orders, sharpen your pencil, show up on time, etc. These are not my original thoughts, but this is what people who study this issue have concluded. The system is not really trying to train kids to think and to be creative. If you read Jonathan Kozol’s works, like Savage Inequality, where he looks at New York City, for example. In one neighborhood, they’ll be spending $14,000 a year on kids in public schools, and in another neighborhood, in the same city, they’ll be
spending $6,000. Well, which school is going to get the best teachers and the most services and the most extracurricular activities? We have an apartheid school system in the United States, and someone in the corridors of power somewhere is concluding “Why waste education on kids for whom there are no jobs?” So they say whatever they have to say to keep people out of the garbage cans and to keep their parents from showing up with rifles outside the State House, but they’ve got no intentions to make these kids fully competitive members. Look at the money they spend on them; look at the quality of education that serves them.

JS: Aside from writing books about this stuff, which is no small thing, and telling people about this stuff every chance we get, what do you think is the future for the peace activist/artist community? What can we be doing that we’re not doing? Because, clearly, we’re not being heard by the man on the street.

PC: I have a growing intuition that the computer and online culture, as much as it has made incredible amounts of information available to citizens, has also served to fragment and pacify them. We sit around
blogging and “communicating” instead of being out in the street and making governance impossible. I came of age at a time when millions of young people were doing exactly that. In the last months of his last
term, Lyndon Johnson could not govern. In the last three months of his, George Bush was still making a lot of trouble. What’s the difference? No one was in the streets. I think we need to get boots on the ground and join hands across social sectors and peer groups; get back to old-fashioned organizing and bring things to a halt until they begin to change. But hey, I’m an old man now, and one of the things about being old in a youth culture is that no one (or almost no one) listens to you.

[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]