One of America’s great rebel journalists of our times, author and columnist David Sirota, will be in Louisville next week to sign a few books and take a bunch of your questions at Carmichael’s Bookstore (2720 Frankfort Avenue).
While certainly different when compared to other journalistic book projects by the likes of Matt Taibi, Jeremy Scahill, Naomi Klein and Thomas Frank — to name a few — Sirota’s ability to capture the nihilism of this Hobbseian decade is masterfully capsuled in The Uprising.
One silver lining of the last 7 years of disastrous presidential leadership has been the spark of some of the best journalism books in years.
Sirota’s Louisville appearance is sponsored by the Louisville Society of Professional Journalists as a part of his extensive nationwide tour to promote his latest tome, The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street & Washington, which recently made the NY Times top 20 best-sellers list.
Today LEO had a chance to ask Sirota a few burning questions on our mind about The Uprising, populism and America’s general sense of outrage.
LEO: Why are Americans so pissed off?
David Sirota: Well I think they’re pissed off because they see a direct connection between the policies of the government and the current crises we’re living through — health care, energy, national security. People no longer see government as playing a passive role, but they actually see the government contributing to and creating the crises we’re now facing. On all these issues there is public consensus for what people want to happen. There’s a public consensus for people who want a public health care system. There’s public consensus for what people want out of Iraq. There is public consensus that people want the government to crack down on the energy companies and deal with the energy crisis. We can make a list on all these issues. On every major issue the government is doing the exact opposite of what the public consensus is and so as these crises have intensified people have gotten more and more angry.
L: How has the press added to or been involved in these crises?
DS: The anger is being stoked by a media that presents a reality they know is false. The march to war was marked by a media that legitimated the case. The public is angry at the media for artificially narrowing the debate. Think about the debate over trade and globalization. Every time you read a story in the corporate media, the people who want fair trade who are against NAFTA are basically made fun of as wide-eyed protectionists.
L: Your book deals with that a lot, how the limited audience of Washington insiders are equal in size to what most consider fringe or marginal populist groups. How do break that false legitimacy of a select few conversations and return to a more democratic public sphere?
DS: Look, the Washington press core behaves like a high school clique. It protects its own. It is part of the establishment. The rise of the Internet and more sources of media has significantly diminished the corporate media’s influence. Ordinary people are not nearly as swayed as much anymore by the propaganda of the establishment media. On major issues while the media presents universal health care as a fringe position or being against NAFTA as being a fringe position, the public itself doesn’t see it that way. That’s in part because there are more media voices.
L: But you’re very critical of flawed uses of the Internet, especially MoveOn.org, how has technology augmented or weakened uprisings?
DS: I think it has strengthened the sense of outrage. I think it has not as much empowered people to turn that outrage into political action as much as the hype. The hype is that technology has empowered people to turn their outrage into action. And I think that is right now overblown. That’s because it hasn’t been used in an effective way. MoveOn.org uses a top-down model. There’s no real small ‘d’-democracy in the organization, it’s a broadcast model. So basically they blast out e-mail. Strategically the technology is being used for partisan ends instead of movement goals.
L: As a country. aren’t we known to have epochs of great temper tantrums that are either quashed by government (e.g. Bonus Marchers) or enveloped in the system as a reform? What’s the difference between then and now?
DS: Well I think the second outcome is the goal. If the government to responds and acts on what the people are angry about then that’s a success. The danger is that the government pretends to do that but in this case I don’t think that’s going to happen. People have been fooled too many times. I think the public has smartened up. The changes that are necessary are so huge and the crises are so concrete — people can’t pay their energy bill, people can’t pay to go see a doctor — no amount of rhetoric or tricks is going to solve that problem. No amount of rhetoric or tricks is going to solves that problem. Real action is necessary. And I believe if real action isn’t taken and it’s just nice words I think these uprisings will get angrier and more intense.
L: When you said that the first person I think of is Barack Obama. At the end of this Hobbseian decade the slogan is ‘Hope’. Does his candidacy represent more of that naive optimism based on nice words that mute uprisings?
DS: I think he’s definitely capitalizing on that or trying to. I’m cautiously optimistic about him in that I think he does appreciate the role of movements, the concept of bottom-up politics which whereby a president or any political leader is a vehicle for change. We need this uprising to put intense pressure on him to fulfill his campaign promises and to make real change. I think the danger is that people are tricked into believing that simply voting for Barack Obama is changing things. Voting for Barack Obama, if he wins, that is a potential opportunity for change. That will not be reached if people continue to think voting for him is change.
L: Many of these uprisings you discuss in the book have various political identities, do you think they could ever unite or are the simply uprising in their own bubble?
DS: There are places for unity. There are issues and campaigns these uprisings can find common ground on. Maybe not uniting to one but underneath all of this is a sense that big money interest control the government. That provides an area of commonality and starting to consider the ‘us v. them’ is not black v. white, ethnicity v. ethnicity, geography v. geography, or male v. female. The ‘us v. them’ is the vast majority versus a tiny minority who control most of the political and financial power in this country. Even on the right the seeds of that argument among rank and file is there. Even among the Minute Men, there’s an understanding that it is the government that is fundamentally corrupt.
L: Of all the movements you’ve seen, what’s the least known but notable that the American people should know about?
DS: Shareholder democracy, the idea that people have power using their shares of stock is one of the least explored and most powerful forms.
L: PETA just bought 80 shares of Churchill Downs.
DS: See, that’s what I’m saying. We’re made to believe that
electoral action is the only viable way to create change when direct-action is the commonly used tool. Getting involved in community organizing or shareholder democracy, any activism where people say, ‘We don’t care who the elected officials are, we’re going to take matters into our own hands is what’s unexplored.
L: Well, thank you sir. Hope the whole of Louisville comes out for the conversation next week.
DS: Me too. (pb)