My dad started to write his first of many books about America’s loss of direction when I began my formal education. It was 1975 and we were living in Los Angeles, where he had recently attended some kind of Christian seminary. My mom was working as a legal secretary and I had no idea why my unemployed dad was picking me up at noon from kindergarten—apparently, he would write in the morning—but almost every day we went out to the park and played sports: football, basketball and baseball.
When his first book, The Separation Illusion, subsequently came out, I cared little about the serious subject matter, nor did I pay any heed to subsequent releases, only one called The Second American Revolution, that sold over 100,000 copies and became a bible of sorts for what we now call the Religious Right (I read that one on a plane flight to Hawaii, and liked the Christian comics that started each chapter the best).
A Whitehead Christmas: Father and son, John and Jayson, strike a pose at their home in Los Angeles in 1975.
To be honest, I have no intimate knowledge of most of his books, or his many mini-books on subjects like abortion or the Constitution. Yet, I’ve been reading the draft of his latest, The Change Manifesto, mainly because of his thesis that hope is on the tip of America’s numb, bandaged tongue.
In the author’s intro, the old man writes that he is “strangely buoyed” by “fleeting glimpses of America’s once intrepid spirit among ragtag groups of dissenters scattered across the country. …More and more Americans seem to be waking from a self-imposed sleep.”
So I traveled over to his office on Hydraulic Road, where I found him to be cautiously optimistic. There is hope for America, he seems to be saying, but the twilight of freedom may also be receding.
C-VILLE: In the intro to your new book you write, “Americans have largely abdicated our responsibilities and allowed our fears to rule us, helped along in no small measure by the events of 9/11.” Haven’t the government intrusions since 9/11 energized a huge block of America? Is there a positive to be found in that?
John Whitehead: When people find the police at their front door, all of a sudden they want to do something about it. That’s the problem, though. Most people wait until it’s hitting them in the face. It’s like the economy or anything else. You can see it coming down the road, and it’s obvious most of the time that something’s happening.
The big fear I have is that a lot of people are just going to continue to sleep. I don’t think we need to be reactive, but proactive. I think there are a lot of things Americans can do, but we don’t want to wait until it’s too late.
You also bemoan “the loss of community” that has resulted in a “bystander effect.” How exactly can people become involved in their community again?
People can get involved in their community just by working in the local homeless shelter, serving soup at the Salvation Army —private organizations like churches should be emphasizing that instead of the building of the next cathedral.
You can help your neighbor. I often wonder why people travel to foreign countries to do so-called missionary work when the problem is next door. So there are a lot of things people can do, but they’re quite obvious.
Isn’t there something inevitable about a loss of community in the face of ever- increasing technology?
The thing about technology is that it creates its own environment, an environment that is hostile to human beings and human relationships. You see it with the use of cell phones today. People are continually plastered to them, earphones always on their heads, and that destroys community.
In my opinion, it’s going to be very, very difficult to have community. Technology desensitizes you to other people. Videogames are a good example. Videogames show people getting body parts blown away, and little kids are playing those. To be honest, to a child growing up under their influence, a videogame is going to be more interesting than a tree or nature. The only thing a parent can do is restrict what their kids watch and actually exercise control.
Community is going to be in danger until we realize that there’s something more important than technology. Do I think that’s going to come about very soon? No.
It seems like, as in a lot of your previous writing, you would have also called for a return to biblical principles. In this book, you are directing Americans back to the U.S. Constitution instead. Was that intentional? Does it reflect a philosophical shift?
It didn’t fit. This book’s about civil liberties. What we need now is just a basic understanding of our history and of our rights. Without that, you can have all your religious principles, it doesn’t really matter anymore. It does you no good to know the Ten Commandments if the police can blow down your door—like I illustrate in one of my chapters—arrest you and smash your head against the floor. So what we really need is an understanding of our history, our rights, and where we came from as a country.
The key principle in this book is just speaking truth to power. If you go back to the great religious figures—Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jesus—they all did one thing essentially, speak truth to power, all power. What we need today is a delimiting of power. If people go back and look at our history and rights, they’ll see that’s what the Founding Fathers talked about. James Madison said it best: “We ought to mistrust all those in power.”
The Founding Fathers understood what it was about. You don’t trust the government, you don’t trust McCain, Bush, or Obama. You trust your basic human rights, and at the first experiment with liberties—Madison said—at the first experiment, object. We don’t do that anymore. We’re too busy watching “American Idol”…a show I never watch, by the way.
You were instrumental in the early formation of the religious right, which ended up supporting someone like Bush and the worst violations of our Constitution we’ve ever seen. Do you feel responsible for any of that at all? Does it make you separate yourself from that movement?
No, I don’t disclaim anything. It’s like John Lennon said when he was criticized one time for some of his songs. He said, “Hey, I was just reporting to you what was happening at the time with me,” and that’s all I do. It’s like when I meet people now that I knew 10 years ago and they’ve changed, I always say to them, “Hey, you’ve actually evolved.” As human beings, you change your ideas over time. If you don’t, I think you need to go see a psychiatrist or need to go take a long walk in the woods. Intelligent people change over time, and I happen to be a fairly intelligent person.
Yeah, the Christian right ushered George Bush into the power of the presidency. The Christian right is an authoritarian movement that everybody should stand against, as we would stand against any authoritarian movement, like Al Qaeda. Fundamentalism in general we should be nervous about—it just has doctrines and tries to enforce them. We see that same fundamentalism in government today with the Bush administration, and it’s something I think is going to continue.
In the intro, you mention that the book started out as an autopsy of America but that during the process of writing it, you became hopeful.
There’s something about the American spirit, that it’s either inbred genetically or historically—and a lot of it comes from Europe—the idea that there comes a time when you have to stand up and fight. I think that gives me a lot of hope. A lot of the young people coming out of law school today that I talk to want to do public service, and they see a lot of problems with what we see happening in the government.
There is a lot of hope out there, but the problem is that we’re human beings, we’re very limited. The government is run by human beings, and the government is going to do evil and bad things because it is run by human beings. The government’s going to fail us—there’s no hope in government.
The point of the book is that hope is in individual actions by people who know the history of the country and exercise their freedoms to go out and carry a sign of protest. It’s courageous acts, but it’s going to be isolated acts by 10 people at a time. There are a lot of people doing things, but here’s the problem—the corporate media doesn’t report these cases. That’s why they’re in the book—they don’t fit into the entertainment mode of what they want to say.
With most of the examples of action you give, people end up suffering to an extent. They are investigated, arrested and prosecuted. The corollary is that if you’re going to be involved, you have to expect some kind of persecution.
Yes, you are going to suffer. Martin Luther King went to jail. All the great reformers suffered, and your average citizen who speaks truth to power is going to find the same thing. So you’re going to have to make a decision. What’s more important, a life of materialism or a life of freedom? They don’t go hand in hand.
You better get ready to take criticism, and you better get ready to be arrested because most people are not going to be on your bandwagon if you take a stand for truth. This goes back to the hope thing—there are a lot of fine people out there screaming and yelling. As I show in chapter eight—which I call the “hope chapter”—you can get some media sometimes, and people are going to show up and think you’re silly. But if you change government policy, then I say, let’s be silly.