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The best books on Change in America

recommended by Van Jones

In the latest instalment of our series on American progressivism, the environmental advocate and human rights activist tells us why the age of Obama will really only begin after the president has left office

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Most of your book choices are about how to make change in the country in one way or the other. However, The Bridge is a biography. Why did you choose a biography of President Obama as a book about progressivism in America?

President Obama’s stark victory in 2008 was one of the signal events, I think, in American history. While we’re very close to it right now – so we’re kind of worried about what’s happening in this subcommittee and that new cycle and this language in that bill – this is a watershed moment. America is a particularly interesting country in that it has a very ugly founding reality that’s very unequal but has a founding dream that is beautiful and is about equality. We hold it to be self-evident that all are created equal and so we’ve had this long 200-plus-year journey trying to drag that unequal founding reality closer to that beautiful founding dream of equality, and this is a huge marker along that journey. That’s why the whole world was touched by our achievement here with the president’s election and I wanted to know more of the back-story.

This particular book I highly recommend – it’s a magisterial work on the president and goes deep into the histories of other African American figures like Marcus Garvey, and fairly major people in the president’s life who are seen as minor characters in the mainstream media. This book goes deeply into their backgrounds, where they’re from and how they grew up, so it paints a much fuller picture of the president’s journey through America as he discovered it and as he changed it.

I think one of the things that people have taken from the book is the many facets of the president, and how those facets and his life experiences shaped his ability to communicate to many different people. Is there anything about that element that you think is meaningful about progressivism and liberalism, and the ability of America to be a place where there are so many diversities – of race, origin, geography, economic conditions – and where a person with such diverse experiences can be president?

I think we’re going into the age of the hybrid – hybrid cars, hybrid world views and philosophies, even biologies and heritages. That’s really part of the American myth, the idea of the melting pot or the big salad or whatever you want to call it. But I do think that progressives have something to learn, and the country has to learn that there’s a lot of wisdom at the margins.

We think we have a diverse society, but most of the time we just have a bunch of bubbles that touch. People are kind of riding the seams in between all those bubbles, but you can sometimes see more from the edge than you can see from the centre. I think that’s some of the power of art from the edge. Fifty years ago, [the African American writers] Maya Angelou or James Baldwin were a part of America that had previously been silenced or silent, and then suddenly burst forth with its own view of life and its own perspective on the country. I think President Obama did that in some ways in politics in those key moments – those key gut-check decision moments where he had to address the right issue or he had to make a decision about whether to go in the campaign trail with the gas tax stampede. There’s a certain wisdom that comes through in how he handled that, because when you spend that much time travelling the margins of so many different things, you eventually have some insight into what holds it all together. I think President Obama is at his best when he goes through that which holds us all together, and I think that’s the real key to his particular kind of political genius.

Do you think that says something about America? Do you think the story of President Obama and those things that he’s able to hold together says something larger about the kind of things that hold us all together in a very diverse country?

Yes. The fact of his achievement, and the fact of the backlash against his achievement, both say something powerful about America. They say true things about America. That rainbow, the hopeful flood that poured out in every city across America when he was elected in 2008, that’s America. And then the counter-flood that poured out at the town hall meetings in August 2009, that’s America too. And I do feel, despite the temporary setbacks, that one America is rising and another America is inevitably on the decline.

I think what the president struggles with is the same thing we all struggle with – how do we truly include the legitimate concerns of all Americans without giving up on our best thinking about what we should do with the country. There’s this challenge of bipartisanship that we’ve been struggling with. All of us know that no one party, or no one ethnic group, or no one gender expression has all the answers, and that we need each other. That said, governing is about choosing, and there can be fear that arises for people when choices have to be made and changes have to go forward.

My basic sense about where we are now is that by the time you get to 2016 you’ll be in the post-Obama era, or right at the end of it, and one third of all the voters will be millennials. That’s anyone born between 1980 and 2000. Now, the little nose of that generation poking into politics in 2008 shook up the whole system. When that little nose pulled back a little in 2010, the system went right back to the nonsense. If you imagine 2012, it moves in a little more, and by the time you get to 2016 I think the future is in those people. Right now we have this last gasp of a particular kind of politics, but I think that the politics that the president has pioneered and embodies is in some ways ahead of its time. I think the odd thing about President Obama is that the age of Obama probably starts after he leaves office.

I’ve said this from the very beginning: The power of President Obama as president is pretty significant, but his power as precedent is where you’re really going to see the change. There are people who are going to be walking into voting booths five years from now who grew up with a black president. And we’ve had a women secretary of state who was a totally legitimate candidate for president and could have just as easily won. I think that Barack Obama’s constituency doesn’t really come of age until he leaves the White House, and goes on to be probably one of our best ex-presidents as well.

Your second book is Robert Caro’s Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. At a time when many consider the Senate an anti-progressive force in our country, I’m curious as to why you chose this book. What does it say to you about progressivism?

I’m always fascinated by people from humble beginnings in our country who rise up to do great things, whether that’s Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or even Jesse Jackson. It’s almost a common trope that you have kids who grow up in very humble, hard backgrounds, who in our country can rise to become tremendous champions.

That is pretty critical to our narrative as a country.

Exactly. And so I’ve always been fascinated by Lyndon Johnson’s achievements, which were towering – though somehow overshadowed by John F Kennedy’s presence, which was blinding. I wanted to have a better sense of how it was that the person who really delivered on the Kennedy vision got to have that opportunity, and this particular book does an extraordinary job of explaining just how crafty and deceptive Johnson was in trying to get one of the early civil rights bills through. The bill was a toothless tiger, it was a civil rights bill in name only, but it did break the ice after 100 years, or however long it had been, for everything that began to flow through Congress. His description of Johnson is arresting, complex, entertaining, very educational, and I don’t think Washington will ever work that way again because it really required a lot of secrecy.

The push towards transparency is very important and I support it. But you can see, by comparing the way the senate operates today to the way it operated then, that the push for more transparency, and more intense and robust media saturation of the political process, tends towards spectacle. The good side is that the secrets get chased away in some respects, but the spectacle ends up capturing the conversation. Johnson was able to go and talk to lots of different people, say very different things to all of them, and eventually land the plane where he wanted to. That probably wouldn’t have been possible with people blogging every 13 seconds and tweeting every five seconds.

It’s interesting you mention Johnson and Kennedy, because in some sense they represent two archetypes of politics and politicians. Kennedy was a charismatic leader, very much identified with public service, but the concept of Johnson is generally of a politician making backroom deals to get things done. What’s interesting about Caro’s book is that it is the negative character who is actually producing all the change. What do you think that says about progressivism, or the ability to create change?

I think that you have to have both of the qualities that you see in the Democratic party in the 1960s. At the end of the day, the ideal is probably a Bobby Kennedy, the pragmatic idealist. You need to be grounded in the deepest values and to aspire for the highest ideals of the country, which you also have to be tough-minded about. So I think that Bobby is my favourite American politician by far in some ways, because he is somehow able to accommodate both.

, and the young people who risked their lives as freedom writers and did the sit-ins and the voter registration. Snick, at its core, never really had more than 30 people, and their average age was somewhere between 19 and 22, but they broke the back of Jim Crow segregation after 244 years of enslavement and 100 years of Jim Crow. A bunch of kids stood up, said enough of that, and pretty much finished off one of the worst systems of racial segregation in the history of the world. I think it’s an important story. Most people think Dr King gave a speech and everybody said, “OK, never mind. Silly us”. I don’t think they realised that Dr King himself was only 25 in Montgomery, 33 at the march on Washington, and dead at 39. I’m three or four years older than Dr King ever got to be.

Young people make history, young people push the process forward, and I think it’s important for the millennials to recognise that as much as the baby boomers did for America, they can do that times 50 because they’re going to be bigger and have better technology. It’s important for young people to know the history and story of other young people, and I really recommend that book and other books about the SNCC. I think it’s the ideal model for young people. It was decentralised, a little crazy, had a lot of courage and made a huge difference.

There are also negative elements described, such as power struggles and conflict between people. Do you have any thoughts about that element of the story and what it means?

That’s the point. You don’t have to have the perfect group, or the perfect people, or the perfect solutions. What you have to have is perfect commitment to a high goal, and then out of that you’re going to make all kind of mistakes, have all kind of problems and setbacks, but do something and get involved. Don’t assume that just because some of the things have been tried before, they won’t work. They might have been tried three years earlier, five years earlier, 30 years earlier, but the time wasn’t right. So young people shouldn’t listen too much to older people, who will say “don’t even try that, I tried it before”. But you didn’t try it today. I like In Struggle because it doesn’t hide the inevitable friction of young people, with a lot of energy and hormones and everything else raging, while they’re trying to change the society they barely understand. But we sure owe them a great debt. We live in the country that some of them gave their lives for.

Your fourth book is A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency, by Jeff Conant. It delves really deeply into how the insurgents communicate their message, to actually motivate and change people’s attitudes.

Yes. I think it’s that they chose to create a myth in which they rooted their story. I’m very interested now in the deeper psychology of change. As Democrats, we don’t have a champion for change, but change is coming to people faster than they know what to do with. The question I think for a lot of Americans is what do you hold on to? Where do you stand? Where do you take your stand?

People are obviously scared of change.

Sure. People resist change even when they seek it. Everybody wants to look like a supermodel or an Olympic athlete, but nobody is doing the stuff that would actually get them to look that way because it would require a lot of change. So even the most desirable change we don’t chase after too hard, let alone adapt to change that we didn’t ask for. I think we have to look at other countries, other cultures, and at how they use their ancient stories in a modern context. That’s what I’m most excited about. Understanding the Zapatistas in particular, I wanted to pick a provocative book so that people say “what the heck?” and maybe they’ll go look at it, because the book isn’t about the insurgency, it’s about the poetry – and the poetry actually did a whole lot more than anything they did with their very few weapons. In fact there are many, many bigger armed rebel forces in the world, but nobody with a bigger imagination.

Do you think that says something about the struggles in America? Is it those efforts that are able to capture the essence of the American myth that move us as a country?

I think so. I think that’s a big part of Barack Obama’s success. I think it’s a big part of the Tea Party success. I think Barack Obama embodied the kind of melting pot, big salad myth, but more importantly in its strong form that’s expressed as e pluribus unum. When he says we don’t have any red states, we don’t have any blue states, we’re the United States of America, that’s not a statement of fact, it’s a statement of aspiration – an invocation of our founding myth.

America to be, not the America that is.

Exactly. And the fact that we fought a war over that principle – are we one country or are we two? And so he’s standing there at that moment in a mythic posture, invoking the founding incantations of the republic and you get goosebumps even remembering it. That’s a very powerful gesture. Then you have the Tea Party doing a very similar thing, invoking an American value of liberty and opposition to tyranny, and you saw a very strong reaction. Americans fought a war over liberty as well, so our two big wars kind of face off each other – Obama representing e pluribus unum and the desire for us to be one country, and the Tea Party imagining that there’s some freedom and liberty that is imperilled, and some tyranny that must be opposed.

In fact, there’s no threat of tyranny from the federal government, but there is a need for a populist uprising – not against mythical government elites that are trying to hijack the economy, but the reverse. There’s an actual corporate elite trying to hijack the government. Citizens United is a much bigger threat. If there’s a threat to liberty, it’s from Citizens United. It’s from the corporate sector trying to grab the government, it’s not from the government trying to grab the corporate sector. But the implication of the myth mobilises people. I think that progressives spend a lot of time talking about policy, cap-and-trade, the public option and the subcommittee vote, all that kind of stuff, when I don’t know if that’s really what moves the country.

Your last book is Natural Capitalism, by Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins. This is really a visionary book about where we can go as a country. What does it mean to you?

The last century resolved a fairly big question, which was are we going to have free markets, or are we going to have statist regimes dominating the human family? That question has been asked and answered. The question now is not whether capitalism but what kind of capitalism. That is still up for debate, and should be debated quite vigorously. Are we going to have the kind of capitalism that concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, that winks and nods at monopolistic abuses of the free-market system but doesn’t actually challenge them, the kind of capitalism which is not productive – basically banker capitalism, gambling, casino capitalism? Is that what we want? Do we want a capitalism that’s going to make life on earth impossible for most humans? Probably not. On the other hand, do we want the kind of capitalism where we unleash entrepreneurship and innovation to solve some of the toughest problems, actually create pathways out of poverty for billions of people, and begin to create a quality of life that’s not dependent on massive destruction of large quantities of resources? There are two capitalisms out there, a grey capitalism and a green capitalism, and I think that’s the big fight.

One of the reasons why I think some of the opponents of the president want to associate a more vigorous and dynamic kind of capitalism – green capitalism – with the old failed socialist stuff of the past is that they don’t want to have this argument. They want to act like there’s only one kind of capitalism, and that’s casino capitalism with bad wages and a lot of pollution for our children. And that’s not true. That’s not the only capitalist future available. This book is the best combination of deep poetry and high theory that I’ve come across in the literature, and it’s a very close expression of my own views.

There’s always been this yin and yang of America – a commitment to individual freedom and free market thinking, and then a commitment to equality and justice. Is this a way that we can combine both, so that we don’t have to give up one to have the other?

I’m pretty simple about this stuff. I just believe the pledge of allegiance says liberty and justice for all. Liberty, property rights, we’re all for that. Nobody in America, no matter how liberal they might be, is going to move to North Korea or Cuba. We like it here. We like all these freedoms, we like our iPads, so we’re not moving. Liberty is property rights and justice, human rights – we’re for that too. Everything which is equality, we’re for that. So the full set of American values requires a dynamic balance, and the genius of America is that we are passionately committed to a whole lot of values that don’t go together. The fact that we make it work day after day, year after year, century after century, is a part of this miracle of what we are. That’s why America is the best idea in the world and the best idea in the history of the world.

What we always have to watch out for are those people who reduce America to a single value. Those are the dangerous people. The people who want to say America can only be described, categorised and celebrated for our extraordinary economic performance. That’s true, but we aren’t just our economic performance. We are also an extraordinary country because of our high environmental performance (and standards there could be improved), our high commitment to labour standards, and our higher commitment to consumer protection. If you want to live in a country where the only thing they care about is economic performance, you can go live in a country like that. Your kids will drink poisoned water, they’ll play with toys that kill them, you’ll work for pennies a day, you can be fired for any reason at all. There are countries like that. But that’s not the United States of America. You’re not going to make – and we can’t let – people turn America into one of those countries, because the reason that we’re the light of the world and a beacon to so many people is because we’ve been able to be excellent across a range of categories, vindicating a range of values at the same time. Even values that don’t go together. How do you respect the earth, make some money, and upgrade and improve our system through the new century? What I love about Natural Capitalism is it takes on that challenge.

June 26, 2011

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Van Jones

Van Jones

Van Jones is an American environmental advocate, civil rights activist and attorney, and co-founder of three non-profit organisations. In 2009 he served as special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation for the White House. He is a senior fellow at the  Center For American Progress and a senior policy adviser at the NGO, Green For All, which he founded. He is author of The Green Collar Economy, a New York Times bestseller. In 2008, Time named him one of its “Heroes of the Environment”

Van Jones

Van Jones

Van Jones is an American environmental advocate, civil rights activist and attorney, and co-founder of three non-profit organisations. In 2009 he served as special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation for the White House. He is a senior fellow at the  Center For American Progress and a senior policy adviser at the NGO, Green For All, which he founded. He is author of The Green Collar Economy, a New York Times bestseller. In 2008, Time named him one of its “Heroes of the Environment”