BUZZINE INTERVIEW with
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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